Online safety education within PSHE

Written by: Jenny Fox | Published:
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Great article, very useful in showing the wider approach to teaching this topic and will help me to ...

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Teaching genuine online safety is a vital part of PSHE, but how can we most effectively build this into an already packed PSHE curriculum? Expert Jenny Fox advises

In an increasingly digital world, our PSHE education curriculum needs to remain relevant and fit-for-purpose by preparing young people to manage various aspects of their lives online.

Digital technologies are now entirely interwoven with, and exert considerable influence on, all parts of young people’s lives. This includes how they perceive themselves, how they explore and share interests, how they establish and maintain relationships, and how they investigate their future careers.

Young people see little or no distinction between their offline and online lives. Therefore drawing the distinction in our teaching is likely to be counter-productive and ring false for our students. Rather, PSHE teachers’ role is to design a curriculum that reflects the deeply integrated nature of digital technology in young people’s lives.

Not so long ago, a single lesson or unit of work about “internet safety”, with traditional messages about how to report abuse or to “think before you post” would have felt sufficient. However, this type of approach to online safety, which treats the online world as something we can step away from and deal with differently, has quickly become outdated.

Teaching young people about how to maintain safe and healthy relationships online is more than simply teaching them how to report cyber-bullying – it is about teaching them the fundamental skills to maintain safe and healthy relationships irrespective of whether these are online or offline.

Teaching about online issues should therefore be woven into all areas of PSHE education, by exploring questions such as:

  • What is the impact of being online for young people’s mental health?
  • How are relationships formed, maintained and ended differently online?
  • How can we teach young people to be critical readers of online information?
  • What career opportunities and employability skills are developed online?
  • How has the internet altered the sale and acquisition of illegal substances?
  • What does it mean to have a digital reputation?
  • How can your digital reputation be managed?
  • How can technology addiction affect physical and emotional wellbeing?

These are just some of the questions and concerns that young people are grappling with, in many cases unsupported by their school’s current PSHE education offer. As a result, they are making mistakes and often floundering.

While it is clear that young people enjoy being online and experience many benefits from using digital technologies, they also report high levels of anxiety and pressure in relation to issues such as body image, sharing explicit images, online hate speech, cyber-bullying, and access to pornography.

Many young people also find it hard to regulate their technology use, and that “switching off” from social media, both literally and metaphorically, can be almost impossible The fear of missing out and the need for “likes” or other endorsements are a significant factor in this.

As people that grew up without some of these technologies it is easy to feel out of touch, thinking that young people know more about being online than we do. And to some extent, that might be true. But the questions posed above are not really questions about technology, they are questions about PSHE education. To help keep young people safe online, we don’t have to be computer experts, we need to be PSHE education experts.
So how can we most effectively build online safety into an already packed PSHE curriculum?

Ask your students

As with any curriculum planning, prioritising is essential, and in PSHE education especially, teaching must be tailored to the needs of your school and students. In order to prioritise and tailor the programme effectively, the most sensible place to start is to ask young people what they think they need to be taught regarding online safety. This may involve a short survey used with large numbers of students, or focus groups from each year group.

Audit current practice

At the same time as gathering student views, it may also be helpful to conduct a brief subject audit, identifying where you already address online issues in your PSHE programme. For example, your curriculum might already have a unit of work about online safety, or specific lessons within other topics on cyber-bullying or sharing explicit images (sexting). Are these still relevant, up-to-date and engaging? If so, they will be a great place to build from.

Wherever possible, this review of current practice should also seek to find out if there is existing overlap with what is being addressed in other curriculum subjects, such as computing, English or citizenship.

Prioritise

A subject audit is likely to identify areas that are currently not being covered, or areas that could be developed further. This can initially seem overwhelming, and PSHE leads are sometimes guilty of setting themselves an impossible task; there is always too much to cover and in too little time. So schools need to prioritise.

Having spoken to your students, you will hopefully have a good idea about those areas of being online that are most important and relevant to young people, which should be addressed first and in most depth. Having spoken to other departments, you may also have a good understanding of any areas you could spend less time on, although it’s important to bear in mind that just because a particular topic area is covered in another subject, this doesn’t mean that it will be addressed from the same perspective as it would be in PSHE education.

Plan

At this stage you are ready to begin planning new material for your PSHE lessons to address the online aspects. This might take a formal, strategic approach such as planning one “online” lesson for every topic in your programme. Alternatively, it might be more subtly integrated; lessons that you are already teaching might be given an online “element”, such as including a case study that looks at how an issue might be different if it occurs online.

Planning should always be informed by baseline or needs assessment – for example, an open-ended activity, such as mind-mapping how to stay safe online, is invaluable in gauging students’ existing knowledge, skills, beliefs and attitudes. This can be used to ensure your lessons “start from where the students are” and meet their learning needs.

Review

Try out some of your online lessons and review their effectiveness – Were the issues relevant? Were students engaged? What did they learn? Did they make progress? How could the lessons be improved? This could be as simple as having PSHE teachers or students respond to a short assessment and evaluation activity after the lessons. As the online elements of your curriculum develop, take opportunities to engage other stakeholders, for example, what are parents’ concerns about their children being online?

  • Jenny Fox is a subject specialist with the PSHE Association.

Further information

If you would like more guidance on how to go about embedding learning to promote online safety and digital literacy into your PSHE curriculum, the PSHE Association has a new Online Safety and Skills training day which will guide you through the process of identifying what needs to be taught, when and how. For details on this and other training, visit www.pshe-association.org.uk/training


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Great article, very useful in showing the wider approach to teaching this topic and will help me to incorporate it in my school's programme. Many thanks!
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