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Are your Pupils Safe from Online Harms?

June 19, 2019, 14:47 GMT+1
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  • As children’s online lives become ever more complex, schools, parents and platform holders all have a role to play in managing the potential risks, says Ann Marie Christian…
Are your Pupils Safe from Online Harms?

Schools’ current online safeguarding obligations, as set out in the DfE’s Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance, requires them to uphold a duty care towards their pupils. It includes, for example, the requirement for staff to attend annual child protection training, so that they can spot the signs that young people may be at risk of, or subject to harm by another person child or adult.

Since the latest update to the KCSiE documents in 2018, those guidelines now also contain guidance for schools on teaching online safety and training teachers in how to spot signs of a child who is at risk of abuse or suffering online abuse. This reflects a realisation on the part of government that safeguarding for schools extends beyond what they’re able to address face-to-face and into the virtual world.

Safeguarding inconsistencies

The KCSiE guidance addresses online safety in Annex C, which describes online safety risks as falling into three categories:

  • Content – exposure to harmful or inappropriate material
  • Contact – risks arising from exposure with other online users, such as adults posing as children, as well as influences such as commercial advertising
  • Conduct – issues arising from online behaviour that causes harm, such as the sending of explicit messages and online bullying

In practice, the above risks will often stem from an online incident that’s happened outside of school, and intersect with schools’ traditional duty of care in complex ways.

However, there can be inconsistencies depending on how forthcoming parents are with information that might shed light on the incident. Some parents will be more helpful than others, while some may not even be aware that anything’s happened at all, because of how removed they are from their children’s lives online.

Where is the line?

There’s been much debate and discussion over where a school’s responsibility for a pupil’s behaviour ends, and where a family’s responsibility for that pupil’s online behaviour begins. For close to a decade, many schools have been talking directly to parents about e-safety as part of good, preventative practice.

Common approaches used by schools include presenting parents with online safeguarding awareness and resources from well-known websites (such as childnet.com), inviting parents in for online safety classes and sending out links concerning online safety via the school newsletter.

Some might use parents’ evenings as an opportunity for raising awareness and addressing the issue of parents’ responsibility for their children’s online activities and how seriously it should be taken.

Because it is serious. The average parent will believe that their child is sensible enough to know how to navigate the internet. However, as a social work manager I’ve had to personally escalate cases where parents have failed to recognise that their child is being sexually exploited online.

Productive partnerships

Legally, if a serious online incident involves the use of devices outside the school or at home, it’s a police matter.

Where schools have a part to play is with respect to partnership working and their duty to co-operate with multi-agency approaches to promoting the wellbeing and safeguarding of children – that is, making parents more aware of their child’s online footprint, helping them better understand the dangers that can arise from it and policing those risks with the child.

A good example is managing screen time and discouraging the presence of smartphones in children’s bedrooms, especially before bedtime and during the night.

This can be done in a healthy way if families and schools work together – indeed, some schools have been amazing at making the case for strict supervision of devices at home, and emphasising how this is in the best interests of their children’s education and welfare.

When done appropriately, the children are able to recognise this too and soon get used to healthier routines that leave them feeling less tired in school the following day and more focused in their work.

Now, more than ever, schools and parents alike have to distinguish between genuinely safe, child-friendly apps – licensed apps linked to popular TV shows and cartoon characters, for instance – with others that might be indirectly putting children at risk of harm.

Who’s watching?

The app Musical.ly, now known as TikTok, is one such example. It essentially lets users livestream video of themselves singing, dancing to pop music and engaging in other activities. Picture filters can be applied to the livestream, making the whole thing feel silly and fun. Children love using it – they’re aware that people are watching what they’re doing and registering ‘likes’ or emoji’s on their performance, which gives them a self-esteem boost and can make them feel more grown up.

However, the issue is that these children think they’re performing for other children, when in fact there are a significant number of adult viewers on the platform who then send inappropriate, often sexually suggestive emojis to those child users.

Channel 4 News highlighted the dangers of TikTok in its earlier Musical.ly incarnation in 2017.

The reporter Fatima Manji followed five children between the ages of 8 and 12 who were using the app, and within an hour they were being sent inappropriate suggestions and images of a sexual nature. Some were even offered payments to move their bodies in particular ways.

Some parents simply aren’t aware of how how harmful the online spaces where their children spend their time can be. Because schools need to be fully up-to-date and compliant with their statutory safeguarding duties, they’re in an ideal position to share what they know with parents and help raise awareness.

Digital leaders

We need to encourage the proactive and preventative work that’s already taking place, and ensure that more schools are working effectively with parents, instead of waiting until things go wrong and calling for crisis interventions.

Take the role of ‘IT lead’ in schools – how involved they are in the school’s online curriculum can vary hugely. Are they simply responsible for configuring systems and ensuring everything works? Or is it a role performed by a member of teaching staff, and therefore one that involves overseeing aspects of the curriculum?

In schools that handle this well, the IT lead will encourage pupils to take ownership of parts of the school website and post blogs about work that they’ve done. In some schools, it might not be made clear who the IT lead even is.

Another approach some schools are taking is to appoint ‘digital leaders’ – pupils who receive training to become ‘go to’ peers, giving advice and guidance to other children. It’s a child-centred approach that utilises the knowledge children have of their peers while providing them with support from teachers.

Duty of care

In April this year the government unveiled its new online harms white paper, which argues for online platforms to be held to account for the duty of care they have towards their users.

I welcome its acknowledgement that parents must be more mindful as to the seriousness of online harms, and its calls for shared ownership of the issue – that families and platform operators can both play active roles in tackling online harms, rather than only schools.

That will improve the present situation, but it certainly won’t ‘fix’ everything. There continue to be issues with apps like TikTok, whose international owners seem to respond reluctantly, if at all, to problems that arise on their platforms. This white paper isn’t going to stop that, but it’s a step in the right direction.

I’d also query how the measures it puts forward are going to be managed. It mentions the establishment of an ‘independent regulator’ to ensure online companies are complying with their duty of care – hopefully that body can complement what schools are already doing, while also supporting parents in ensuring children that children’s experience of life online can be positive, but above all, safe.

Ann Marie Christian is an international safeguarding and child protection consultant, trainer and author; follow @Annmariechild or visit annmariechristian.com

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