Keeping kids safe online: all our responsibility

Parents and teachers need to work together to help children safely navigate the world wide web, writes Claire Stead

By Claire Stead, Online Safety Expert at Smoothwall

Early in January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her proposal that every secondary school in Britain will be offered training on how to cope with the rise of mental health issues, not least cyberbullying. As access to the digital world becomes increasingly ubiquitous in schools, teachers now face a huge challenge in making sure that children are protected from malicious, violent and inappropriate content. But is it just the teachers that should bear the responsibility?

Schools as a whole now have a duty to protect their pupils while children are browsing the web in the classroom. As the digital IQ of children increases with each passing year, schools must adapt and remain smart in how they safeguard their most vulnerable assets. 

As set out in the Keeping Children Safe in Education document updated in 2016 by the Department for Education, schools are now legally required to ensure they have appropriate filtering and monitoring in place. Failure to do so is not only against the law, but a direct threat to the safety of children across the country. 

There are three main areas of risk which all schools must understand and mitigate:

  • Content: being exposed to illegal, inappropriate or harmful material
  • Contact: being subjected to harmful online interaction with other users
  • Conduct: personal online behaviour that increases the likelihood of, or causes, harm

It is, however, no longer enough for schools to simply block the most obviously threatening sites. With recent Ofcom research showing that six-year-olds have the same understanding of communications technology as 45-year-olds, a web filter alone will not stop pupils reaching harmful material. So there are two options to consider: either schools forbid children access to the internet in the classroom, or they put in proactive monitoring solutions designed to allow pupils to browse the web in a safe manner. Clearly, the answer is not the former.

Recently, stories surfaced about schools using ‘snooping’ software to ‘spy’ on pupils as they work on computers. Stories like this vastly exaggerate and unfairly criticise all the good work schools are already doing to protect children online. Monitoring in schools is controlled and positive and is not used as a spy tool, but rather as a way to protect children from any online threats and highlight any safeguarding issues. As digital becomes an increasingly prominent part of education and its curriculums, schools are under pressure to enable pupils digitally whilst also protecting them from the darker side of the web – from illegal activity to radicalisation to, of course, cyberbullying.

And, while schools must of course play their part in the protection of children, parents have to talk to their kids about what they’re up to online. Children have an insatiable curiosity, and this is exemplified in no clearer way than when they have a vast pool of information available to them in the form of the free internet. 

You would teach your child how to cross the road safely, so why shouldn’t you teach your children how to navigate the potentially risky streets of the world wide web?

Parents must have an open dialogue with their children around the dangers of oversharing, stranger danger and privacy theft to supplement the work schools are doing. After all, you would teach your child how to cross the road safely, so why shouldn’t you teach your children how to navigate the potentially risky streets of the world wide web?

It’s easy to forget that the internet itself is a wonderful tool to aid education, with some dismissing it as a hindrance to children’s progress. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. It can assist teachers in supplementing information they are giving their pupils, and allows them to research and use that extra insight to boost their knowledge and achieve higher grades. As the technology world advances, we expect to see many improvements in the way tech is implemented and how this harnesses the internet as a force for good. 

If schools don’t keep on playing catch up with innovation and technology, they’ll be left behind in the (hypothetical) online safety league table. Schools must ensure they have the latest in smart monitoring to safeguard children. These include intelligent monitoring, keystroke monitoring, accurate software profiling and up-to-date firewalls to protect the networks on which pupils spend hours each day. Educational establishments need to embrace this sweeping pace of change and work with both parents and teachers to ensure children are protected online.

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