Keeping students safe online

A report by the Children’s Commissioner claims that children are unaware and unprepared for what they are signing up to online

Despite the fact that one third of internet users are under 18, Growing Up Digital, A Report of the Growing up Digital Taskforce believes that the ‘internet is not designed with children in mind’. An issue that needs addressing as the report states that 12-15 year olds now spend over 20 hours a week online.

The Children’s Commissioner asked a group of young people to read the Terms and Conditions of Instagram, a picture sharing site used by 56% of 12-15 year olds who have a social media account. The children struggled to understand the document, “Boring! It doesn’t make any sense,” Amy (13 years old).

They then read a simplified version of Instagram’s Terms and Conditions drafted by a law firm. When they understood the terms they realised that by signing up to most social media accounts they are waiving their fundamental privacy, allowing apps to track them and sell their personal data, and that the apps can change their Terms and Conditions and even terminate their account without notification.

This understanding made many of them uneasy, ‘I’m deleting Instagram because it’s weird.” Alex (13 years old). 

This simple exercise highlighted the concern that many young people are unaware of their rights and of the terms to which they are agreeing when making social media accounts.

To tackle this issue the Children’s Commissioner argues for the creation of a compulsory digital citizenship programme for children aged 4-14; simplified Terms and Conditions for digital services offered to children; and a new Children’s Digital Ombudsman to act as a go between for under 18s and social media companies. 

The hope is that these government interventions will give children and young people resilience, information and power, enabling them to become creative and protected citizens of the online world.

"Resilience and critical thinking are perhaps the greatest assets for children; to ensure they not only survive, but go on to thrive in our digital world.Alice Webb, Director, Children’s BBC and BBC North

Whilst these interventions are being discussed here are some top tips for keeping your students safe online:

  • Help students to create boundaries as to what behaviour they deem acceptable and unacceptable online and encourage them to discuss it in the classroom and with friends.
  • Remind students that whilst they are hidden behind a screen when they share content online, real people are viewing the content. If they wouldn’t say or do it in person, do they really want to post it online for the world to see?
  • Ensure they understand that if they send pictures or messages via text or messaging apps, the person for which the message is intended may not be the only person who views it and that by sharing content on messaging apps they are giving the messaging app the rights to the photo or message.
  • Ensure students understand the permanence of images, messages and any other content they share online and via apps and how universities and future employers may look at an applicant’s online presence. 
  • Ensure children know how to report inappropriate content on social media and that they know they can talk to teachers and other trusted adults about something they have seen or are seeing online that is worrying or upsetting them.
  • Give students access to trusted online resources for research, this allows them to explore subjects within a safe research environment.

It is not always possible to monitor all the sites and apps that young people use at school, at home and on the go, on computers, tablets, mobile phones or gaming devices. But the hope is that with open and honest conversation, encouraging critical thinking and resilience young people will be empowered to thrive in the digital world.