Helping parents to protect their children

Written by: Terry Freedman | Published:
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Digital safety is a crucial responsibility for parents and schools. Terry Freedman looks at how we can support parents to keep their teenagers safe online

According to a November 2017 report by Ofcom, youngsters aged 12 to 15 spend a lot of time online: 83 per cent have their own smartphone, 91 per cent go online for 21 hours a week, and 74 per cent have a social media profile.

Even these statistics don’t tell the whole story. According to the report Social Media and Children’s Mental Health (Education Policy Institute, June 2017), the 15-year-olds they refer to as “extreme” internet users clock up six hours-a-day online – far higher than in any other OECD country except Chile.

It is also interesting to discover that, contrary to popular opinion, teens are concerned about their privacy online. A small-scale survey carried out by the Data and Society Institute in the USA discovered that teenagers were not only concerned about their privacy, and how their phone tracks everything they do unless they make a huge effort to prevent that happening, but welcomed adult guidance.

Bearing all this in mind, what can you do to help parents keep their children safe online?

Have a ‘living’ online safety policy in school

The school itself has to take online safety seriously, and be seen to do so. That means having a policy that (a) everyone is aware of and (b) is continually updated in the light of new information and emerging trends and threats.

Putting it bluntly, it is pointless to have a so-called online safety policy that is basically a local authority template with the school’s name filled in, and stuck at the bottom of a filing cabinet in the school technician’s room.

Furthermore, the policy needs to be reflected in our education and curriculum. And the curriculum needs to recognise that many studies have shown that the risk-taking part of our brains don’t fully mature before our early-to-mid-20s.

A good article on this subject, even though it is some years old now, is Nancy Willard’s Why teens make unsafe choices online (2011).

She writes: “It is exceptionally important to use teachable moments – learning opportunities that arise – to discuss issues and problem-solving strategies related to safe and responsible online use. News stories can provide excellent opportunities to discuss those issues because the news stories focus on how actions result in consequences.

“Talking with teens about incidents that have happened – who did what, what decisions were made, what happened, what other decisions could have been made, and how might those decisions have impacted the outcome – provides a vehicle for them to practise decision-making.”

Get the kids involved

There are several very good ways in which you can involve the young people in your school. First, carry out a survey to find out how often your students go online, what they do there, and what their concerns are. Anonymise the survey to avoid them giving answers they think you want to hear. The information from the survey should give you plenty to work on or at least to prioritise in your teaching of online safety.

Next, it would be a good idea to involve students in drawing up a “responsible use” policy – note the difference in tone from the more usual “acceptable use” policy. You are asking them to take responsibility, not making them agree to something that you have drawn up (or, worse, copied and pasted from somewhere) and which they haven’t bothered to read.

Get them involved in activities for Safer Internet Day, and also in putting on assemblies to teach other (especially younger) people the potential dangers of being online.

Provide information to parents

There are several kinds of information it would be worthwhile sharing:

  • Practical guidance about how to reduce online risk from a home computer.
  • Useful suggestions about what sort of intervention works.
  • Ways of working in partnership with the school.
  • What parents can do themselves.
  • Where to get more information.

Practical guidance

Information about how to put filters on your computer is potentially useful, as is how to check internet browsing history. However, there are three things to bear in mind here.

First, teens are quite savvy these days, and can often figure out, or find out, how to get around filters and clear their browsing history.

Second, research suggests that restricting or very tightly monitoring young people’s time online is a kind of band aid solution. Why? Because as the Byron Report found out more than 10 years ago, mediating online use may be effective in helping keep children safe, but does nothing to help them if they do experience something worrying online.

As the Education Policy Institute report mentioned earlier puts it: “The more children do online, the more skills they have and the more they judge that they know a lot about the internet. Or the more skills and/or self-confidence children have, the greater the range of online activities they undertake. But the converse is also the case – the less of one of these, the less likely the others.”

They conclude that “restricting a young person’s access to the internet could inhibit the development of the skills needed to handle online risk”.

Third, as a Chinese proverb says, Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In terms of online safety, it would be impossible for parents to monitor and tighten up the controls over every possible app that their child may install. Some teens have a second phone in any case. Much better to make sure they understand how to keep themselves safe in terms of what they say and do online.

Useful suggestions

Both the Education Policy Institute report and the Ofcom report emphasise the importance of parental mediation in teens’ use of the internet, and what kinds of mediation are effective. For example, talking to kids about their online activity is recommended. I would also suggest a simple but effective activity: if home circumstances allow, designate at least one evening a week as a digital-free zone, involving the family having a meal together and a face-to-face conversation.

Encourage a partnership approach

Parents should feel able to contact the school if they have concerns about their own child, whether as a potential victim or perpetrator. Parents shouldn’t feel that they have to deal with a complex and difficult issue alone.

What parents can do themselves

Parents should set a good example themselves. Another study, this time from the National Cyber Security Alliance in the US (October 2017) found that teens expected certain behaviour from their parents as well as vice-versa, such as not sharing passwords with friends.

Another suggestion might be to not share photos of their children online. According to a report by the London School of Economics in May 2018, parents who are especially concerned about privacy also share more images or videos of their child online. Perhaps not a great example to set.

Where to find more information

This is surprisingly easy. Parents don’t have to search for and trawl through academic reports. There’s a good chance that their internet service provider has a wealth of information about online safety.

For example, BT has links to guidance and tips from experts via its Internet Matters website and there are lots of other good online safety websites, not least the UK Safer Internet Centre.

Getting the information to parents

How should you share all this information? Try a mixture of the following:

  • Parents’ online safety briefing evenings.
  • Regular updates on your school blog about internet safety.
  • Classes in how to set controls on a home computer.
  • Information bulletins containing useful links.

Conclusion

Parents shouldn’t be intimidated by teens’ supposedly superior knowledge of all things technical! They have a vital role to play.

  • Terry Freedman is a freelance ed-tech writer. He publishes the ICT & Computing in Education and Digital Education newsletters at www.ictineducation.org. To read Terry’s previous SecEd articles focused on computing and technology, go to http://bit.ly/2NAtSDX

Further information

  • Children and Parents: Media use and attitudes report, Ofcom, November 2017: http://bit.ly/2G1g1mO
  • Social Media and Children’s Mental Health: A review of the evidence, Education Policy Institute, June 2017: http://bit.ly/2MEw0rn
  • Teens are worried about online privacy: What schools should do to protect them, Education Week report into the Data and Society Institute research, May 2018: http://bit.ly/2Saxi2E
  • Why teens make unsafe choices online, Nancy Willard, Education World (updated 2011): http://bit.ly/2UqpGX9
  • The Byron Report, Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008: http://bit.ly/2Rmiolr
  • Second annual National Cyber Security Alliance survey reveals complex digital lives of American teens and parents, highlights gender divide, National Cyber Security Alliance, October 2017: http://bit.ly/2BdefuG
  • What do parents think, and do, about their children’s online privacy?, London School of Economics, May 2018: http://bit.ly/2RVC44G
  • Internet Matters: www.internetmatters.org
  • UK Safer Internet Centre: www.saferinternet.org.uk


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