It used to be that teachers only had to worry about students hooking up at the school disco. But for today's students everything, including dating, is happening online. This introduces a whole new set of child protection issues for teachers to be aware of.
“Students as young as 13 are using dating apps in class,” a maths teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, reveals. “I have told them it isn’t a safe way to meet people at their age, but it’s a really tricky area to police.”
Adam Baker, head of ICT and a specialist leader of education at Parmiter’s School in Hertfordshire, says that he has found increasing numbers of his students using dating apps.
“Children navigating these apps are entering the adult world without the experience and skills necessary to support themselves,” he says. “They are putting themselves in high-risk situations where they could be exploited.”
The dangers extend beyond apps to the internet as a whole, with unregulated web browsing giving children unprecedented access to explicit material.
Mr Baker says: “When discussing e-safety with parents, I always ask whether they would allow their child to go out speed-dating or to hang out in bars. By allowing children to have unlimited access to apps and websites, this is exactly what they are doing.”
Hannah Broadbent, deputy CEO of Childnet, an organisation which works to make the internet safer for children, agrees with him. “Geo-social dating apps are not appropriate for anyone under the age of 18. It is important that young people understand the risks and that they register with the correct age for all online sites and services. Safer Internet Day on 9 February is a great opportunity for parents and schools to talk with young people about the personal information they are sharing and who they are sharing it with.”
Mr Baker has come up with six tips to support schools in having these conversations:
- Make use of e-safety and social media policies
Every school must have these in place. We are relaunching our own policies on Safer Internet Day to remind all staff, students and parents about what is appropriate on social media.
- Raise awareness during lessons
Use form-time activities to keep e-safety at the front of pupils’ minds and encourage discussions across subjects rather than just in ICT.
- Maintain staff training and support
Staff should be briefed regularly on e-safety. Your e-safety officer should be just as present as your child protection officer. Staff should also be advised about their own online presence to ensure that they maintain professionalism.
- Communicate regularly with parents and guardians
Ensure that the age limitations and safety risks of certain apps are understood. Schools need the support of parents and guardians to make a lasting difference. We send out regular letters on e-safety, to keep them informed.
- Offer e-safety evenings
We hold these evenings for parents and children as part of our Year 7 induction programme. After the events we send out an advice pack for further support and to help the discussions continue at home.
- Encourage the use of monitoring software at home
It is very straightforward for parents to monitor their children’s behaviour online. There are plenty of tools made for this purpose. For example, OurPact is a free app that allows parents to monitor app use on children’s phones and tablets.