Deidre Bowen, Troubled Families Manager and Deputy Safeguarding Lead at School-Home Support (SHS), writes…
SHS is an education charity that helps children to be in school, ready to learn, when circumstances at home are challenging for them. We aim to empower parents, working together with them to resolve or support them through issues such as poor housing, domestic abuse, poverty and mental illness. Unsurprisingly, safeguarding issues frequently crop up.
While some protection concerns are directly associated with a particular environment (such as substance misuse in the home), some issues are helpful for all parents to learn about. Such as online safety. And while teachers will already be well up on much of what is to follow, this may help them to advise parents, as well as act as an aide memoire.
Online safety advice for parents
When SHS practitioners talk to parents about e-safety, the first thing they need to emphasise is the importance of a good, honest conversation. Talking openly with your child about the internet, and looking at it together, is vital. You can find out what sites they use, what their friends use, what they think about these sites and what they already know about privacy and safety. You can also agree on what’s appropriate for them and set boundaries together.
When talking to children about privacy, a good way to start is by introducing their digital footprint. A digital footprint is the trail of information that people leave online, such as the photos they upload, the comments they make on a forum, their tweets, any dating profiles or job profiles, email attachments, and other such information. Without even realising it, people can leave behind a clear digital footprint which would allow others to put together a very full impression of that person’s life and/or online activity.
It’s important for children and young people to understand what personal information consists of and how giving this away online could create their own footprint – as well as how easy it would be for someone to pretend to be someone they’re not, using this information. If your child tweets their full name and the name of their school, someone could Google this and find, for example, a photo of your child on a local news piece about the school’s sports day. They then know what they look like. It’s easy to see how somebody could pretend to be a parent’s friend or even another child at the school with this kind of information, and children should be aware that not everybody online is who they say they are.
If a child tweets their full name and their school, via Google someone could find a photo of them… [and] pretend to be a parent’s friend
Obviously, the goal isn’t to scare your child (or yourself!). The internet has many benefits; its capacity to help a child in researching a topic is fantastic and the way it connects children to parts of the world that they would never have previously experienced can be truly eye-opening. They just need to know to exercise caution. Snapchat, for example, seems to delete photos and videos soon after they publish but actually, that information is stored somewhere forever as part of a person’s digital footprint. You can explain that, even though these things don’t seem important now, anything said online may come up in the future if someone important to them, such as an employer, Googles their name.
A discussion on digital safety should also include online bullying and abuse. A recent poll found that 35% of 11-17 year olds have been bullied online. A child should be aware that they can come to you if anyone is upsetting them or making them feel uncomfortable online, and also be shown how to block/report people on various websites. You can also go through their Facebook privacy settings with them (if they are over 14 and allowed a Facebook account), showing them who can see what on their profile and why it’s important to choose ‘friends’ carefully!
Talk about being an online bully
It’s also a good idea to talk about being an online bully, as well as being the subject of online bullying. If a child knows that anything they say online is more public than they think and that the school/police will get involved if someone reports them for being abusive, that should be deterrent enough. But some children do have difficulty in associating words on a screen with the people behind them. Explain that bullying someone online isn’t a lesser issue than bullying at school. If anything, it can be worse, as you’ve made their home no longer a safe space from criticism and abuse, and as social media is 24/7, made it impossible for them to escape. You can also discuss together what cyberbullying is and what constitutes abuse. Would they be upset if they uploaded a photograph and a classmate made a mean comment about it? What should they do if that happens?
Bullying someone online can be worse than at school: their home is no longer a safe space, and it is impossible for them to escape
Online and real; understanding the difference
Social media is an important part of most people’s lives now but it’s vital that children understand the difference between the digital and ‘real’ worlds. In addition to needing to employ an extra level of caution about privacy when online, it’s also important that children understand the emotional impact of social media. Blurring the line between reality and online is easily done and can have a huge impact on a child’s self-esteem. Prior to the 2000s, you couldn’t actually quantify popularity in a class. But now, you can see quite literally how many friends someone has on Facebook, how many people are ‘like’-ing their photos, how many people attended their birthday party. You may want to reassure them that while it’s okay to want to take part in something that everyone at school is doing, it’s also okay to not take part. Maintaining an online profile (often curated, even among very young people, to convey an unrealistically perfect life) can be a pressure that’s just too great.
Children often think they’re older than they are, so it’s important that you are clear on what the expectation is on them and what the boundaries are. Unfortunately, social networking sites currently do not take much responsibility for the content which is shown on their sites to young people. Ideally, there would be filters in place: Facebook has a minimum age of 14, for example, but there is no difference between what could show up on a 14 year old’s wall and a 40 year old’s wall. Unsuitable content such as pornography – easily accessible and sadly prevalent across many social media channels – is something many young people will be exposed to while online.
Judge what you talk about case by case
Talking to children about matters such as online pornography is sensitive and should be judged on a case by case basis depending on the child. The key is open communication.
It also helps to be realistic. As long as children are using online sites, unsuitable content may pop up, and children are curious creatures. Teaching them how to block and report unsuitable content, and letting them know they can come to you to discuss anything which makes them feel uncomfortable, are both good ways to protect them.
What else can you do? Setting up as much privacy protection as possible does make a difference. You may want to do some research yourself about privacy online to work out what is best for your family, and indeed your students. You can put in parental controls and blocks, can add passwords, can put a limit on internet use and can agree on how much supervision your children require in order to go online.
Cover the webcam
An extra tip is, if you use a laptop or PC, to put something over your webcam. There have been recent cases where people’s computers have been hacked into and they have been watched via their webcams without their consent. These cases often end in blackmail attempts but there are grooming implications too, and it’s an easy fix.
Overall, the most important tool for online safety is trust. Children have to trust their parents that they can talk to them. They need to know that even if they see something which makes them uncomfortable, there is a safe space available where they can talk.
The Home Office Disrespect NoBody PSHE education teaching materials are designed to support the Government’s campaign to help prevent abusive behaviours within young people’s relationships, and have been updated for 2017. Download the materials here.