When we look back 10 or even just five years, parents and teachers would give children access to the internet hoping that, in the majority of instances, the filtering software installed would protect them from inappropriate material.
Although not 100 per cent effective, this process meant that access to unsuitable material was rare.
Today 50 to 60 per cent of school-aged children now have SmartPhones and are now free to access any websites, social media pages and videos on YouTube, leaving web filtering applications completely ineffectual.
Even if we could bring in controls, the number of occasions that young people will be faced with information inappropriate to their age, changes daily.
The mention of “age” here is also important. Information appropriate for a 16-year-old will likely not be acceptable for a five-year-old. While we want to protect all children we don’t want to remove their access to educationally valuable online information.
The dynamic of the problem has also changed over recent years. Ten years ago we were talking of stranger danger and sex offenders and, while this is still a danger, the way in which children interact and communicate with each other is the current threat.
The anonymity of the internet and social media, people’s ability to tweet offensive information (trolling), or people posting photographs taken at parties for all to see, are issues that we all face. However, our own digital footprint is something we can control and need to protect.
In the blog My Digital Footprint, Tony Fish reminds us that digital footprints are the digital “cookie crumbs” that we all leave when we use some form of digital application.
He writes: “We somehow expect that, over time, the waves will wash over the digital footprints to erase them like the ones on the beach – but they are not.”
What students put on the web, which may seem amusing and daring at 16, could affect their career opportunities at 25; employers will commonly Google potential recruits to find out more about them than they were willing to share during the interview. Sadly, once made, we can never erase our digital footprint.
So, if we are educating our students for their future lives and careers they must understand the importance of their digital footprint, but how do parents and schools manage this? The only answer lies in educating children to manage and take responsibility themselves.
Whether they are of primary or secondary age, teaching children to manage the content they see and take responsibility for their actions is the only way forward. Our group of schools works with students to get them to look at what their digital footprint says about them, their friends and family.
Although I hope this isn’t the case, I could find that in years to come, information or pictures that my 18-year-old son is posting on his website or social media pages reflect badly on my career.
We are all responsible for our digital footprint and they often link us to one another, so we often ask parents to consider what the information on their social media pages say about their children – have they even considered this?
As we move towards the inevitable era of “bring your own devices” in schools, children will soon be on their 4G phones accessing any information they want. So now is the time for schools to sit down with their students and agree a policy of ethical use of access to content. By getting student buy-in now they are more likely to commit to the rules.
For example, if a child is accessing information on their mobile device that is not in line with the learning activity, what are the penalties?
In another class, students are using their phones to video a lesson so they can post it on YouTube and reference it at revision time. Brilliant! But what happens if they film an experiment in chemistry where the teacher has made a mistake? Has the student considered how the teacher would feel if this was posted online?
In addition, we need to consider what students should do when things go badly wrong; when someone posts inappropriate pictures or information about them, or when they are targeted with offensive material, do they go to the teacher, their parents, support worker or ChildLine?
The rules and ethics need to be discussed and agreed with the students and firm policies put in place now, in order to avoid problems later.
James Garnett is acting group director of ICT and e-learning at United Learning, which runs 20 academy and 11 independent schools. United Learning works with European Electronique and Mr Garnett recently hosted a seminar at Bett 2013, alongside the company, themed on this issue.