It’s a (cyber) crime: Teaching laws of internet usage

Nic Ponsford

Nicole is the digital leader of @WomenEd, leader of @WomenEd_Tech and founder of @gendercharter. Previously, she was an award-winning AST in Media and New Technologies. Nicole is passionate about gender equality being the ‘new normal’.

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Image credit: @BallymunY Image credit: @BallymunY

When it comes to internet safety, we teachers are learning all the time. We know that when young people are not safe, cyber-bullying can be fatal. This report illustrates the figures with 4,400 young people committing suicide every year. Many educators are realising that the internet was “not designed with children in mind” and that age restrictions and privacy settings are not enough to keep young users safe.

We know that being e-safety ‘aware’ is more than just “the power” of reposting images of your students holding whiteboards (Thanks Mr. P) and that ‘Internet Safety Day’ should be every day, not just an annual event.

We even - sometimes - invite parents to workshops. Isn’t this enough?

I would argue no. Have we really developed our internet safety lessons beyond ‘cyber-bullying’? I don’t think we have. Following the recent UK #internetsafetyday, I wondered why many schools were still not linking ‘e-safety’ with criminal responsibility. We tend not to look at licensing, privacy rights and media laws, beyond the Secondary Media Studies classroom.

Any why not? I realised that many teachers don’t actually know this stuff. Which means the kids don’t. I only know because I am an ex-Media Studies AST.

So, at a time when a GIF can be used as a “deadly weapon” and French parents can be ‘jailed’ for sharing images of their own children online, it seems to me that we need to understand the law, in order to teach our ‘digital natives’ (cringe) their rights.

Why? Well, quite frankly teachers and parents have no clue. If we take ‘Terms and Conditions’ to start “We tend not to look at licensing, privacy rights and media laws.”with, many young (and adult) users tick the box and skip actually reading the text. When a lawyer felt the need to rewrite the privacy rights, when it came to Instagram’spost-graduate reading level” 5,000 word long terms, it illustrated that complexities we are expecting children and young people to understand.

My argument is two-fold; "children are children until they become adults" and we need to teach them responsibility. This means we need to teach them the laws around media usage - before they use it. And it seems I am not the only one thinking this....

To find out more, I contacted Holly Powell-Jones. Holly’s background was initially in professional journalism, as a freelance reporter and newsreader. Whilst working for Eagle Radio Ltd in Guildford, she got involved in designing and running projects for their Education department, alongside doing their News. Holly’s work included designing brand new training called: ‘Online and Social Media Law and Ethics’.

The goal of the training is to teach young people the basic ‘need-to-know’ aspects of media law, relevant to social media, the Internet and digital communications. In June 2013, Eagle Radio Ltd received a substantial funding grant from the Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey to deliver ‘Online and Social Media Law and Ethics’ to local state schools (students, plus parents and teachers) and produced a report.

In the first year, Holly spoke to roughly 9,000 pupils across 45 schools, delivering a combination of assemblies and workshops, alongside adults training. Illustrating “Terms like ‘cyberbullying’ don’t always distinguish between ‘mean’ and ‘criminal’.”the need for this, the project was recommissioned, and is currently in its fourth year. Meanwhile, Holly was awarded a studentship to undertake a PhD in 2014, at City University of London’s Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism, investigating youth perceptions of risk in relation to social media offences. She is now in her third year. She also teaches Criminology and New Media Challenges at City University’s Sociology department, and is also a visiting lecturer/module leader for the Journalism MA & BA ‘Media Law and Ethics’ modules at Goldsmiths University of London.

In a nutshell, Holly Powell-Jones knows her stuff. So, I asked Holly: what should teachers teach?

1: “That media laws (including criminal laws) do exist in relation to digital media & the Internet... So people can and people do go to prison for what they do/say/share via their social media!”

Action: Ask your SLT to bring this eye-opening fact to the forefront. Not just on ‘Internet Safety Day’, but as soon as they can. Bring in media law to your digital literacy discussions. Start it early when students are 10 years old. Ensure that you also take the time to inform parents and support staff about this too.

2: “That the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is just 10 years old, so that means the consequences can be very rough, even if you’re still in school and you break the law”.

Action: Again something for parents to also be involved. To find out more see this link.

3: “That people sharing private/sexual/naked pictures or video without the subject’s permission to cause them distress is a criminal offence and can be reported to police, regardless of how old you/they are”.

Action: The aim is to ensure that students are both kind and responsible, both online and in the real world. Ensure that classroom codes of conduct are mirrored when students log on.

Holly believes the benefits of this knowledge are life changing. As she points out, “Firstly, it allows students to make informed decisions about their behaviour online with full knowledge of the law. I truly believe that knowledge of the law, and learning via case studies of what has happened to other people, can help to deter young people from committing offences, or at the very least, make them stop and think twice”.

Secondly she knows that it can empower young cyber-victims to take action, “to seek help, support and justice.” She also states, “I believe that if young people are aware of the law and know their rights, then they can affirm: ‘Yes, a line has been crossed’ and this may help them to seek help, especially from adults, where before they might have blamed themselves.

It also helps teachers, who after all are loco parentis with a responsibility for young people’s education and wellbeing. “A very important part of that job is being able to recognise the difference between serious and less serious problems among their students, and vague terms like ‘cyberbullying’ don’t always distinguish between something that might be ‘mean’ or ‘rude’ versus something that is criminal, such as harassment, abuse or blackmail, and so knowledge of the law is key,” Holly points out.

One of the issues that I have seen in schools, especially challenging Secondary schools, is that many of the students are skeptical of teachers really knowing what is “cool”, on trend and just…wrong. If the PSHE teacher isn’t a popular sort (…y’all know what I mean) and he or she is in charge of the drugs and social media crime lessons, the student audience will listen quietly - but they may be thinking “What would YOU know?” Having a police officer or charity worker deliver the message can be more effective. Students may believe that someone with authority / experience is more on their level.

Holly agrees. “You can create a lot more impact, when you’re trying to challenging young people's behaviour or assumptions, if you can demonstrate knowledge of the law, and cite particular real-life cases to explain the potential consequences. This tends to work much better than a ‘moral lecture’, especially when coming from someone older and potentially ‘out of touch’ with new technology.”

I suggest we start early. By ensuring that we know the law, we can support students to make informed choices for their future - and those of others - both on and offline.

If you want to get ‘into touch’ with digital and online media laws, here are a few sites I’d advise you start with:

How do you ensure pupils know about online behaviour laws? Share your tips below.

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