OnlyFans, abuse and safeguarding: what you need to know

Young people are increasingly vulnerable to abuse online - so how can schools help to safeguard students from the darkest parts of the web?

Gudrun Ingimundardottir and Rosane de Angelo

Sexual harassment in schools: Tough online harm law needed, says NSPCC

“Miss, why are you a teacher when you could be making money on OnlyFans?”

This is the sort of question that can leave many teachers reeling. 

True, it's unlikely to prompt a sudden reassessment of your choice of vocation. But many will struggle with where to begin with such questions – or even what queries like these mean.

What is going on on the internet that we need to be aware of, and what do we do about it?

The OnlyFans platform – in which users pay to receive often X-rated images – has become increasingly mainstream, getting namechecked by pop culture icons including Beyoncé and Cardi B, and developing a reputation as a lucrative and empowering industry.

But, as the NSPCC reports, the rise of such sites is increasing the risk of sexual exploitation of minors, with inappropriate content spreading to popular social media sites, including Instagram and TikTok. 

Meanwhile, toxic masculinity and hostile attitudes towards women or marginalised groups are proliferating across all age groups, including students as young as 11. 

Harmful ideologies are spread among impressionable minds on gaming platforms or in chat apps like Discord, where students are initially drawn to the gaming environment and community, but risk being drawn into something far more sinister.

6 steps to help safeguard against online abuse

So what can teachers do? What are teachers responsible for? As schools the world over find themselves playing whack-a-mole in an attempt to address identity, safety, civility, and even criminality online, keeping students safe can feel like an impossible task.

There are nevertheless ways in which a school culture can be developed to empower students to make the right choices for themselves on the internet, even when they stumble along the way.

Here are six steps you can take to help safeguard against online abuse: 

1. Create a safe environment 

Students need to feel that they can share their concerns without being chastised or punished, as this can trigger an emotional imbalance that finds them seeking consolation with those who do not have their best interests in mind.

If students are afraid to come forward to their parents, they need to know there are other adults in their corner.

2. Shift the blame to the predator, not the child

Shaming students for falling prey to adult predators in a clearly imbalanced power dynamic is misguided at best, and cruel at worst.

Due to the prefrontal cortex not being fully developed yet, adolescents are more prone to taking greater risks without predicting the consequences of their actions. Moderate discussions with students with this in mind.

3. Don't silence debate  

Forbidding talk about extremes such as hate speech or pornography is a surface solution to a more profound issue. Instead, model empathy for your students, both in the way you choose your words, as well as how you organise discussions about these matters with your students. 

4. Debunk fake news and teach data literacy

Online hate groups tend to spout statistics that give off an air of authority, and can therefore appear as truth to the untrained mind.

Schools around the world are already doing a monumental job of equipping students with the critical thinking skills needed to distinguish between real and fake news. However, knowledge of data collection methods, sampling and scientific methods is an important part in developing a more skeptical mindset to real, imaginary, or shoddy data presented as absolute truth used to justify hate or hateful actions.

5. Teach consent and bodily autonomy 

Students who have learned to stand up for themselves and recognise their agency are more likely to know how to react in adverse situations. Students should be taught to recognise their own boundaries as well as respect those of others, and this should be modelled in all interactions in and around the school.

6. Don’t just warn parents, work with them

Parents are our allies, and by working together, we can prevent the worst from happening.

Culturally sensitive collaboration with parents on key signs of concern and responding appropriately should be a top priority.

While the question regarding a teacher’s choice of revenue source remains unaddressed, the environment in which it sprung up does not have to be. An empathetic school culture may not be the solution to all the world’s ills, but it’s a start at the very least.

Gudrun Ingimundardottir is an MYP coordinator and head of middle school, and Rosane de Angelo is an educational psychologist, counselor, and designated safeguarding lead at an international school in Sao Paulo, Brazil

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Gudrun Ingimundardottir and Rosane de Angelo

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