How to teach online safety through (almost) any subject

With the internet taking an increasingly large role in all of our lives, it should play a part in the teaching of as many subjects as possible, argues Rebecca Mace

ict safety

There is less of a distinction between online and offline life than ever before. 

That means the vast majority of student friendships and relationships are being augmented and played out through a mix of online and offline interaction. 

It also means that it feels somewhat artificial to teach online safety as a separate topic.  


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Subjects such as English, history, religious studies and even sports science can all provide a way into online safety discussions.  

Take the example of sexting; the behaviours showing up online can be seen as an extension or amplified aspect of attitudes already present in culture or society. 

Research undertaken for the NSPCC found for boys in Years 8 to 10, the performance of collecting images operated as evidence of popularity – photographic proof that boys could “get the girls”. 

However, the same research also suggested that things did not work in the same way for girls; while both girls and boys are subject to peer surveillance, girls were often blamed for sending photos and called “skets” or “sluts”, and this contrasted with how boys were largely rewarded for displays of bodily masculinity such as posting photos of their muscles on Instagram or Snapchat.

While such online behaviour is clearly a topic appropriate to RSE lessons, the potential to reveal and transform the social attitudes in play goes beyond a discrete part of the curriculum. 

Literature

The themes of ownership and possession and the “problem” of female bodies could be usefully discussed in an English class, looking at texts such as Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and An Inspector Calls. All provide opportunities to discuss these themes without compromising on curriculum time. 

Or perhaps using the notion of traditional male and female roles from the perspective of differing cultural and religious contexts, consent, dress codes, what constitutes offence, and/or female empowerment would all be interesting discussion points within a philosophy and ethics/religious studies lesson, tying in neatly with both the GCSE and A-level syllabus. 

Sports science

Sports science could address things from the perspective of body image, considering what it means to have a “masculine” physique, notions of “hard” masculinity, and differing body types in both males and females. 

Mental health issues around eating disorders could also be discussed, as they feature on both sports science and psychology curricula, as could the ways in which peer pressure or digital influencers can impact upon adolescent behaviour. 

Psychology

Psychology could use gaming as a way into the study of brain chemicals such as dopamine and cortisol. Alternatively, given that gaming disorder was added to International Classification of Diseases by the World Health Organisation in 2018, but not to the American Psychiatry Association’s manual (the DSM-5), a useful discussion, closely linked to curriculum content, could be had about pathologising behaviour.

Teachers do not always have to adopt a moral stance in relation to these issues, sometimes presenting the facts is enough.

Critical thinking

Developing student criticality is an important skill and online fake news should be considered. This can be approached within the context of source reliability in history, politics and/or religious studies. Likewise, examples of propaganda can be connected to online disinformation/false information. 

Furthermore, algorithmic discrimination can also be linked into racism, a topic covered in a wide range of key stages and subjects, perhaps using facial recognition software, or social/racial profiling, as a case study when looking at stereotyping, crime statistics, or poverty in subjects like politics, economics, religious studies and history. It could also be used in a statistics lesson, or a maths class on probability, if taught in a sensitive enough fashion, demonstrating the potential flaws in the data produced.

Another digital risk is that of datafication/data farming. This could be dealt with from the perspective of human geography in terms of the changing economic world and the impact of capitalism.

Politics

People’s data is used as a resource in much the same way other global resources: harvested and then sold to generate profit. Business studies and economics classes can all be linked to digital risk along similar lines. 

Politics could look at the different freedoms afforded by various nation states online, comparing China and America in terms of political systems and right to free speech both online and offline.

The ways in which different forms of media have impacted upon political uprisings over the course of history could also lead to some interesting discussion.

The key is to use students’ online experience as a way into wider societal issues. These wider issues are “on the exam” but linking the concepts to a digital setting could provide much food for thought, greater scope for conversation and, potentially, develop greater personal criticality in regard to social media and digital risk taking. 

The more angles from which the students are presented the information, then the more likely they are to take it on board, meaning the conversations could continue outside of the classroom.

Our lives are surrounded by a virtual world, so it is important that students are able to connect this to real world learning for it to have maximum impact.

Rebecca Mace is head of digital character development at Cheltenham College

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