How we can educate students about the realities of online life

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Safer Internet Day saw resources published to help teachers and parents educate children about the realities of online life. Dr Hilary Emery considers how we can approach this tricky topic.

For almost all children, the internet is an indispensable part of their daily lives. But as online relationships become increasingly important, are they sufficiently prepared to recognise and manage the risks involved?

While retailers and manufacturers have a role to play, and parents are of course crucial, increasingly there is an expectation on schools to provide guidance to children on the safe use of the internet, mobile phones and social media.

The 10th annual Safer Internet Day took place recently promoting more responsible use of online technology. The theme, Connect with Respect, focused on online rights and responsibilities. In the UK, the Sex Education Forum (SEF) and the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) produced a guide for parents, Let’s Talk About Online Relationships, to help them support children to be in control and enjoy good online relationships. Teachers will find this helpful too.

There is considerable pressure to be seen as popular and amass numerous “friends” or “followers” online, but while many issues about building relationships and trust are the same online as face-to-face, the medium is very different and children need help to think through and understand acceptable boundaries in this environment.

An ideal place to discuss these ideas is in PSHE or Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). One school which worked with the SEF had a series of incidents involving girls sharing intimate snapshots with boyfriends that have 

spiralled into harassment and emotional blackmail. Their response was to develop lessons within SRE on the dangers of “sexting”. Using the YouTube video Exposed (by online safety agency CEOP) to stimulate classroom discussion, they have been able to explore what can go wrong when highly personal images get into the wrong hands.

School policies on bullying and safeguarding need to include and promote responsible and safe behaviour online. Particular work is needed to challenge the emerging culture of the “malicious bystander”. ABA’s young ambassadors have raised this concern and feel strongly that those who fan the flames of cyber-bullying, by casually sharing embarrassing and derogatory images or comments, should be challenged alongside the instigators.

Finding ways to engender responsibility in online relationships is vital. In 2012, the NSPCC estimated that between 15 and 40 per cent of young people had experienced “sexting”. High-profile cases, such as the 13-year-old who fell to her death after begging a boyfriend to delete lewd videos of her, are prompting politicians to take note. In February, Claire Perry MP, who advises the prime minister on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, told the House of Commons that sexting was a “growing and endemic problem”.

Solutions lie in a holistic approach linking ICT policies with those on bullying, PSHE, SRE and behaviour. At home, parents need to signal openness to talking about all relationships and schools need to keep families informed about their policies and approaches. 

We all have our part to play in ensuring that our digital “natives” have the skills and support they need to stay safe in this enhanced and intoxicating realm.

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau.

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