Safer Internet Day: An opportunity to talk about online safety in schools

by Katie Rigg and Will Gardner

Schools globally are celebrating Safer Internet Day today with the theme: together for a better internet. This day takes place on a different date in February every year and is an opportunity for schools to discuss and debate online safety issues, and to empower your students to take control of their online lives in a positive and safe way. At CIS we have been working closely with Childnet International and have co-written this blog to highlight some of the key issues affecting your schools, and to explain what you can do to help to make the internet a great and safe place for your students.

   
What are we talking about when we talk about online safety in schools? 

Online safety in school is about developing resilience in young people so that you can harness the positive aspects of the internet. It is about being able to identify online harm that may be affecting members of your school community and being equipped to respond effectively to it. Online safety affects almost all aspects of school life, from the way in which your governors/owners oversee and scrutinise your approach, to the opportunities that your students feel they have to disclose concerns. From policies, monitoring and filtering systems, to the culture of your school. 

In the same way that it touches on all facets of school life the internet is now an integral part of students’ lives. It is part of how students spend their time, build and break friendships and intimate relationships, and interact with their peers. It is part of how students learn about sexuality and relationships, develop their understanding of what is ‘normal’ and what is expected of people, and form images of themselves and of others. 


What opportunities and challenges does the internet present for young people?

“I made an Instagram account to spread female rights, LGBT++ rights, religious rights and more.” (young person)

Many young people around the world have been using the power of the internet for good for many years. The internet can, for example, empower young people to express themselves creatively and connect with others, help young people to increase their knowledge of any field, develop key digital literacy skills, and celebrate difference. It can also enable young people to form powerful new friendships and to strengthen existing ones. 

Sometimes… there are threats going around… Like, “I’m gonna send this screenshot of something you sent me if you, if you don’t do x.” It’s like blackmailing (young person)


We also know, however, that for some young people, the internet has been a source of worry and harm. Some of the risks include cyber-bullying, online sexual harassment, online grooming and abuse, and harmful and/or extremist content online. Research suggests that online abuse affects a significant minority of young people. For example, in one research study of 13 to 17-year olds in Hungary, Denmark and the UK, over one in twelve young people said that they had shared a nude or nearly nude image of someone else without their permission; one in ten said that they had received sexual threats online, and over one in fourteen said that someone had used sexual images of them to threaten or blackmail them (Project deSHAME). 

How can schools help to make the internet a great and safe place for students? 

We have seen schools make significant progress over the past decade, as many dedicate energy, time and resources to this issue, and professionals’ understanding of what effective practice looks like has evolved. Drawing on what young people said about what they would like from schools, here are some aspects to think about, and resources to draw on:


Use peer-led initiatives 

This sort of thing should be developed through pupil-led learning. We tend to already have reasonable ideas about this, and due to our friends having such a big effect on us we’re more likely to listen to them (young person)


Research suggests that young people are more likely to talk to and learn from their peers, than they are from teachers. Equipping your students with the knowledge and skills to support each other is a key component to an effective online safety program. Training students to be digital leaders or ambassadors is a good way of doing this. This Digital Leaders Programme is one example of the type of programme you can implement. A number of international schools have implemented this programme and have said that it has given students a voice in online safety, has motivated students to share their experiences, and has the potential to leave a lasting legacy. As with any programme, you should contextualise it so that it is most relevant for your students (for example, by talking to students about particular games or apps that they are using).


Understand, define and talk openly about the positive aspects as well as the risks 

Talk more positively of what is a good relationship (young person)


All you hear about is the negative stories of meeting someone online, you never hear about the relationships that have worked out and are positive/healthy (young person)

Driven by a desire to keep students safe, professionals can sometimes focus too much on risks, which can lead to students’ perceptions that teachers are ‘out of touch’. Understanding and talking about what your students are doing online and highlighting the benefits as well as the risks is key to promoting a strong safeguarding culture in your school. Staff training, parent workshops and activities with students are all part of this. Ensuring that these conversations are culturally relevant to your community is also important. 

Focusing on positive relationships to support students to apply critical skills to all their relationships (online and offline) can be a powerful way of framing the conversation. Initiatives like Safer Internet Day (SID) can help with these efforts and should be part of on-going conversations. SID started as an initiative of the EU Safe Borders project in 2004 and is now celebrated in more than 100 countries worldwide, and across six of the world’s seven continents. Each year the UK Safer Internet Centre puts together resources for schools, including an education pack. This year, their campaign focuses on Understanding Consent in a Digital World. Here are some videos of students talking about consent for Safer Internet Day: Link 1; Link 2. In Australia, the Safer Internet day campaign is focused around the four Rs: Respect, Responsibility, Reasoning and Resilience.


Management of online safety in school 

Having one member of staff take overall responsibility for the school’s online safety and be supported by a team of individuals (including, for example, designated safeguarding staff, the head of IT, curriculum co-ordinator and any medical staff) enables schools to co-ordinate their online safety efforts. Organising your online safety team as an online safety committee which students and parents contribute to, and which meets regularly, has provided an effective mechanism for many schools to manage and review their approach to online safety.


Engage your local community providers and understand your legal and cultural contexts 

Every school has its own unique legal and cultural contexts and it is essential for schools to understand these and to build their online safety work around them. Ways of doing this include (a) conducting a mapping exercise to identify your community providers; (b) meeting with those providers to understand their services, expectations and practices; and (c) involving local staff, students and parents who may understand the local context better than your management team. 


Update your online safety and acceptable use policies 

Involving students, parents and staff in a review of your online safety policy(ies) can be an effective way to make your policies user friendly (i.e. short, concise, and easy to follow) and relevant to your school’s context, and to help your community to understand your policies. Other relevant policies (for example, child protection or safeguarding, behaviour, disciplinary and IT policies) should be consistent with and refer to your online safety policy(ies).  

Make reporting easy, and well-understood


Give students a comfortable environment where they can talk about their concerns/problems and help to solve them however big or small (young person)

Providing safe spaces for students to talk about their concerns and any difficulties they are having, and helping them to solve these, no matter how big or small you may think they are, is critical. Explaining how students can raise concerns within school, providing students with the contact details of local organisations and helplines, and explaining how to report harmful content online is key. See, for example, Childnet’s advice on How to Make a Report

Prepare for disclosures, support all young people affected by an incident, and address the underlying harm


Listen and don’t judge (young person)

As you create safe spaces for students to share concerns, you are likely to find that the number of disclosures increases, and you will need to prepare for this. Staff training is key, as is identifying your local referral pathways and support services. The way in which you respond to online safety incidents can have a significant impact on your school’s culture and on students’ experiences of harm. It is important to adopt a safeguarding approach to all students involved, to ask yourselves what other harm these students may be exposed to, and whether an incident is indicative of a wider pattern of behaviour or a culture in which harmful behaviour is normalised, and to take steps to address this.  

Review and strengthen your school’s approach 

This online safety self-review tool is one example of how you might review your school’s online safety approach. Measuring the impact of your efforts through, for example, informal discussions, focus groups and surveys, will help to make your efforts relevant and effective, and to identify harm within your school community. 

Take Action to Support Students 

The way in which schools approach the internet has a significant impact on students’ experiences of it, whether positive or negative. By taking some of the steps set out above, and drawing on resources and support, schools can help to make the internet a great and safe place for their students. 


Will Gardner OBE, CEO, Childnet International and Director, UK Safer Internet Centre

Katie Rigg, International Advisor for Student Well-Being, Council of International Schools 

The quotes from young people were taken from the Digital Romance report by Dr Ester McGeeney and Dr Elly Hanson, on behalf of Brook and the CEOP Command of NCA.