How to teach online safety to tech-savvy students

Don't feel like a dinosaur when teaching online safety – pupils will benefit from your maturity, writes Zofia Niemtus
14th February 2020, 12:04am
Don't Feel Like A Dinosaur When Teaching Tech-savvy Pupils About Online Safety
Zofia Niemtus


How to teach online safety to tech-savvy students

There's a lot of attention paid to the online world in the new curriculum. Reflections about online life are woven into the general advice, and there are specific requirements to teach about online relationships, the online and media worlds, and internet safety.

But what does a research-informed approach to these issues look like?

Adrienne Katz, author of Cyberbullying and E-safety: what educators and other professionals need to know and head of the annual Cybersurvey (the latest of which heard from around 15,000 young people), says it's important not to be swept up in media panic around these subjects.

"There's a battle between the headlines and the research," she explains.

"Even if the research is reasonable and moderate and exploratory, the negatives tend to be picked out."

Katz gives the example of screen time. The much-discussed dangers have now largely been debunked by research, she says - including in a report published last year by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health - but what people tend to remember are "unhelpful" headlines that have caused worried parents to be "counting the minutes" their children spend online, bringing "huge friction in families".

She believes that the new curriculum in England presents an opportunity to correct these misconceptions.

Staying safe online

But ensuring that lessons are grounded in reliable research for topics relating to the online world does present challenges, explains Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology in the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics.

"If one takes any particular issue, there are people arguing very strongly on different sides," she says. "There isn't a consensus. And there's quite a lot of poor evidence, which makes it hard to be an authority."

Communicating the lack of reliability or consensus around the evidence in some areas is a crucial part of the teaching process: we need to be honest about what we know and don't know. And schools also need to ensure not just that the content is right, but the teaching approach is the best it can be, too.

"Lots of places are producing lots of resources on different topics," says Livingstone. "Take cyberbullying. There must be 100 organisations in this country producing guidance. Not all of them are robustly based on evidence, and very few of the materials and resources are evaluated."

For example, some of these resources will advocate a scaremongering approach - and the tone of much of the discourse around the online world can also focus on extreme negatives of the internet and online relationships.

Teachers should steer clear of this, argues Katz: scaremongering to get young people to do what society deems to be acceptable is unlikely to be effective. In PSE sessions around online safety, she says, anxious staff can fall in the trap of jumping to the worst-case scenario.

"They'll say, 'These are the terrifying things that could go wrong and these are the rules that you should follow'," says Katz.

"But there is research suggesting this might not be the right approach. We know it doesn't work with drug and alcohol and sex education, so why are we doing it with online education?"

Similarly troublesome, she says, is the tendency for teachers to write themselves off as "dinosaurs" who don't understand the latest technology.

They don't need to know "every bit of new slang and abbreviation", she continues, "but they do need to know which apps their students are using, because without that they don't know what the experience is and what the risk is".

A useful overarching principle, Katz says, is to remember that even if young people are digitally skilled, they're still likely to be emotionally immature.

"And that's where adults can give guidance, from a more mature standpoint," she explains. "What does a healthy relationship actually look like, online and offline? Exploring that should be a priority."

So too should be understanding the many benefits that young people take from their online relationships, she adds.

"The positives should not be overshadowed by adults' worries, which are often very different concerns from what young people are concerned about.

"The agenda should not be dictated by adults here. The very extreme cases are terrifying, but they're very rare, relatively - and there are other common worries that young people have on a daily basis that they have to navigate."

Livingstone argues that simplistic notions that vulnerable children have most to fear from the internet are also problematic.

"There is quite a lot of evidence that vulnerable kids' offline vulnerabilities are reproduced and extended online, so they can be particularly at risk. But they also really do find sources of support [online] that they couldn't get offline."

She gives the example of an 11-year-old who thinks they might be gay. It would often be "fantastically hard" for them to get offline support from their peers while figuring it out, but the online world offers instant information and community.

"Children say in research, time and again, that the online world is the first place where they go when they want confidential, private advice," she says. "And that isn't necessarily to an authority source, but it might be to a forum where other people facing those issues are discussing them. And that may or may not be productive."

Ultimately, if we really want to teach effective lessons around the internet, Katz says the one thing we should remember is to listen to pupils.

"Young people really want to talk about their online lives, but they're not given the opportunity in school. It's one of the biggest issues in their lives. We need to work in partnership with our students here rather than handing down ideas from on high."

Zofia Niemtus is acting content manager at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 14 February 2020 issue under the headline "Don't feel like a dinosaur teaching online safety"

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