Being reasonable, not hysterical, about e-safety

Keir McDonald

Keir McDonald MBE started EduCare thirty years ago with just a handful of talented people. At the time, he had little idea that his company’s learning programmes would end up teaching more than three million people about duty of care issues. In acknowledgement of his work and achievement in safeguarding children, Keir was honoured with an MBE for Services to Children in 2012. EduCare's newest training programme is on child exploitation and online safety.

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When it comes to safeguarding pupils online, some teachers will want to take a ‘better-safe-than-sorry’ approach to the issue. Keir McDonald, Chairman of EduCare, argues that the benefits of learning online outweigh the risks commonly associated with the internet.

As adults, we know that the internet is not a good or bad thing, just as there are no good or bad books (only well written or badly written books). It’s true that there are parts of the internet which are enlightening and breathtaking, and other parts which are deeply problematic. However, we don’t fear for our own safety every time we use Google or a social networking site. Why then are well-meaning teachers so frequently driven to alarmism when it comes to students going online?

In the frenetic discourse surrounding child safety online, many of us well-intentioned adults forget to actually talk to any children about what they think. That is, until those rare but unforgettable cases where something has already gone terribly wrong. A group of academics from the London School of Economics sat down and talked to 378 children about e-safety. What they found out may surprise you.

Unlike what concerned teachers may often assume, many children reported “planning” and “reflecting” on ways to stay safe online. Older children who frequently use social networking sites (such as Facebook and Twitter) generally don’t do so without using preventative strategies to combat the risks of stranger danger and cyberbullying. These involve taking precautions, such as tweaking their Facebook privacy settings.

Unfortunately, while children are quick to react proactively to online bullying, either by blocking the sender of abusive messages or by disabling their account, they are much more hesitant to seek support from a teacher. This is problematic as cyberbullying incidents can sometimes escalate very quickly.

Why are children hesitant to seek support from their teachers when faced with cyberbullying, and what can we do about it?

Young people are aware of the opinions of teachers, and easily swayed by them. It makes no sense for a young person to share their internet problem with a teacher who appears to be afraid of the internet - especially when the consequence may well be a blanket ban on all social networking sites in their school.

Many schools have taken the correct first steps by producing quality e-safety lessons which include anti-bullying campaigns. But as teachers, we also need to encourage children to trust us with their online problems. How can we do this? Well for one thing, we can approach the internet in a way that is more reasonable than sensational - afterall, the internet has many positives and it generally brings much more benefit to our lives than harm. Headteachers who attempt to ban Facebook may be well-meaning, but they are also unrealistic and short-termist. They unintentionally prevent children from developing important e-safety skills, such as being careful about which photos they upload to social networking sites. There is also evidence that disconnected children miss out on the more generic online skills that have become mandatory in the modern workplace.

For better or for worse, both social networking sites and the internet have become part of the world around us. By taking steps to earn the trust of older children, by respecting their need for a certain amount of privacy, and by not spying on their social networking site usage, we do much more good than by preventing their internet usage. We need to let children know that we are not afraid of the internet, and that they can always come to us if they have a problem which they cannot face alone.

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How do you handle e-safety in your school? Tell us about it in the comments.

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