Keeping pupils safe online during lockdown

Written by: Kathryn Day | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Online safety has become even more of a priority for schools and families during the coronavirus lockdown. Kathryn Day describes how schools can promote online safety while children are away from the classroom

Online safety is a challenge for schools at the best of times. But with the coronavirus pandemic closing school gates to the majority of pupils, it is much harder to ensure that children travel safely on their journeys through cyberspace.

Away from school and with time on their hands, children are at a greater risk than ever from online dangers.

Out of sight

While many children are lucky enough to have a structured learning timetable, parental support and controlled access to the internet while at home, others are not so fortunate. Parents who are under extreme pressure due to high workloads, financial or health concerns may find it difficult to keep tabs on their children’s online activities.

Children are naturally curious, and if they have unfettered access to internet-enabled devices they could stray into risky territory all too easily. It only takes a few clicks of a mouse or swipes of a screen and a primary school child could be watching inappropriate YouTube videos or taking part in an unmoderated chatroom.

Similarly, it does not take much for a child to stumble across dangerous content by mistake. A visit to a seemingly innocent online game can be a cleverly disguised route into more sinister waters, such as a self-harming site or pro-anorexia forum.

Risky behaviour

As many an education profession would say, it is not the devices that are the problem, it is the behaviour. And poor behaviour can have a far-reaching impact. While primary age children are more likely to listen to advice about how to communicate online, year 7 and 8 pupils are of an age where the temptation to take risks is at a peak.

In the current climate when children are isolated, anxious or bored, they may seek to make themselves feel better by tormenting others with unkind messages or excluding them from group chats. Some children could take advantage of lockdown by engaging in cyber-bullying in the knowledge that they will not have to account for their behaviour at school.

Peer pressure can extend its influence online too. Unable to goad one another in the playground, young teenagers could resort to showing off on social media by pretending they are going out whenever they like, staying up all night and not doing a shred of homework.

So, what steps can schools take to keep their pupils safe online?

Offer support and guidance to parents

Schools can continue to play a key role in reinforcing the online safety message, even from a distance. Many parents will be consulting schools’ social media feeds during the closures, so consider reaching out to parents and offering advice and support through the channels they use every day.

Your school’s website can be an effective way to make parents aware of organisations which specialise in online safety. For instance, Internet Matters has some good, practical advice for parents, including on how to have a conversation about cyber-bullying with your child.

Openness is essential in helping children understand the dangers of the online world, and equipping them to tackle problems if they arise, and this resource could give parents a helping hand in opening up a dialogue with their child. Internet Matters also offers invaluable advice on setting up parental controls on gadgets, apps and devices.

Elsewhere, there is also advice from the NSPCC, while the Department for Education has published guidance for schools (DfE, 2020) which includes a range of useful links for parents/carers.

Another useful link to include on your school website is CEOP, an organisation which protects children and young people from sexual abuse and online grooming. CEOP can also provide a lifeline for older pupils who are worried about something that has happened online to make them feel unsafe or scared.

Help pupils make the right choices

For younger children, you could send out links to interactive games and quizzes, family-friendly apps and activities which educate pupils about online safety. The online safety charity, SWGfL, has some brilliant resources to help, including its Safe Remote Learning advice.

Some schools are also running lessons for children and their parents to take part in together online which is a great way to kick off conversations about how to stay safe.

Elsewhere, children in the later primary and early secondary years seem to be fluent in messaging platforms, but how well are they actually communicating to their friends? Messages can be misunderstood, and one misinterpreted comment could result in friendship groups falling out. Instead of messaging all the time, encourage pupils to talk to each other on Facetime, Zoom or Skype, as video calls are the closest thing you can get to real social contact. When children can see each other on screen, they are more likely to be kind.

For a child who is being bullied online but does not feel they can confide in anyone, Childline provides confidential advice on anything from reporting inappropriate images to concerns about Covid-19. Schools can make a big difference by raising pupils’ awareness of this support.

Harness the positive

At times like this it is more important than ever to focus on the positives, and schools can do much to encourage children to use online activity as a force for good.

One of the great things to emerge from our shared experience in lockdown is the torrent of creativity from funny videos and memes through to backyard sports tournaments. Challenge your pupils to use their own creative spirit in their online interactions, and get them to share their best endeavours.

Rather than advising against spending time on the games console, you could point children in the direction of games that encourage collaboration and communication as well as fun.

Some online games open up whole avenues for creativity. For example, my son is an avid Minecraft player and he and his friends build things together. It is a way for them to communicate while creating something at the same time.

Schools can use their own social media feed to keep in touch with pupils, and this in turn will inspire children to use platforms creatively to reach out to their own families and friends.

One school filmed its teachers, caretakers and admin staff reading extracts from books in different rooms around the school, and shared the videos with pupils. This helped to remind their younger pupils that the school will still be there for them when lockdown comes to an end.

Schools can also be a valuable source of support to older pupils who are anxious about the coronavirus pandemic. Consider providing children with links to reliable sources such as the BBC or the NHS. This will keep your pupils informed and steer them away from fake news and conspiracy theories that only serve to increase anxiety levels.

Even though most pupils are away from the classroom right now, there is plenty that can be done to get the online safety message across, and to provide practical ways to make sure children enjoy their online interactions.

By highlighting the positive ways children can use technology in these extraordinary times, schools will embed a culture of responsible, resourceful and safe online activity.

  • Kathryn Day is a CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) Ambassador, former primary school deputy head, secondary ICT subject leader and local authority computing advisor. Currently head of training and development at Juniper Education, she is a mother to two digital natives.

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