Internet can entangle both pupils and teachers
A 14-year-old girl disappeared from her home in Dorset last month after telling her family she had been talking to a stranger on the internet. She was found safe and well in Winchester two days later, but it was a timely reminder of the case of Ashleigh Michelle Hall, a 17-year-old who was killed in 2009 by a 32-year-old man posing as a teenage boy on the social networking site Facebook.
With cases such as these becoming increasingly common, it is small wonder that the Scottish Government decided last month to update its action plan on internet safety and responsible use.
The document prioritises the training of teachers and other adults to equip them with the "skills, knowledge and understanding to help children and young people stay safe online".
Teachers have long been calling for more guidance on this area. Increased usage of the schools intranet, Glow, and other online teaching resources, combined with a curriculum that encourages independent and creative research from a young age, means that even the most reluctant teachers have to face the reality of allowing children regular access to the worldwide web.
Statistics published in March by the research body EU Kids Online, showed that 85 per cent of UK children aged between nine and 16 had used the internet for schoolwork in the past month and almost all children had accessed the internet at school.
But schoolwork accounts for only a small proportion of the time children spend online. The web is where children converse with their friends and meet people. More than 80 per cent of 13 to 16-year-olds in the UK will visit social networking profiles in a single month.
Vulnerable children, the research shows, are more likely to engage in risky behaviour while accessing these sites, and children who say they feel more confident in the virtual world than offline are more likely to try and make friends online with people they don't know. A quarter of them had added people they had never met to their "friends" list on a social networking site.
"Teachers will spot the lonely and the neglected children in their class," says Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, who leads the UK Kids Online research. "What I would like them to think about is that they may also be trying to compensate for this on the internet."
Being groomed is not the only risk children and young people encounter online. Figures released last December by EU Kids Online showed one in 10 British children between nine and 16 had seen sexual images on websites in the past 12 months.
Helen King, head of education at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), says her organisation is especially concerned by the dramatic increase in "sexting" - the sending of indecent images from mobile phones and webcams.
This often starts with a young person sending a picture of themselves to their boyfriend or girlfriend, which becomes publicly available, either deliberately or by accident. Often this leads to severe bullying, and pictures can end up with paedophile networks.
Mrs King says young people often do not consider the consequences of sending explicit pictures of themselves: "It is instant and they don't consider what might happen."
According to statistics released in 2009, a quarter of 13 to 18-year-olds said they had received images.
Experts such as Ollie Bray, national adviser for emerging technologies in learning at Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS), say filtering and banning websites will not decrease the level of risk to which children are exposed because they don't extend to mobile devices; improving children's level of digital literacy is the only solution.
The focus on internet safety and training in responsible use should start in early years education, he argues.
"To me, there seems to be an obvious gap in Curriculum for Excellence. Children from an incredibly young age are interacting and using technologies," he says.
Martin Dewar, from the youth information portal YoungScot, says teachers have to shake off their fear of technology and get young people involved in what they are trying to teach them about online safety.
But losing respect for the risks posed by the virtual world can lead to a completely new set of risks unrelated to children.
As more teachers become active online with social networking profiles, Twitter accounts and blogs, they fail to avoid the very pitfalls they spend so much time teaching their pupils about, thereby putting their jobs and reputations at risk.
In January this year, business studies teacher Tommy Murphy was suspended from his post as a head of department at St Matthew's Academy in Saltcoats, North Ayrshire, after his entry was discovered on a "dogging" website visited by people looking for casual sexual encounters.
In 2009, a teacher in Argyll and Bute was investigated for reportedly accessing Twitter an average of 20 times per day, and making remarks about her pupils on the site.
And only two weeks ago, a primary depute from Dundee, Linda Ross, was struck off the GTCS register after links containing sexual content were found on a website in her name.
Often, however, the inappropriate behaviour can be as simple as expressing non-mainstream political views or listing sexually explicit films as your favourite on a social networking site.
Simon Finch, e-learning officer at Northern Grid for Learning, teaches a workshop entitled "How to lose your job" to teachers across the UK. He says: "The challenge is when you are out of the office and at home - your guard does slip.
"One example I give is the teacher who lists Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City as her favourite programmes. In itself, it is harmless, and obviously people are allowed to drink wine at lunchtime and do all these things. But if you put that out there, you can't be surprised if parents or kids use it against you."
As a rule of thumb, he says, teachers should not do "anything you wouldn't be happy to have your headteacher look over your shoulder and see you do".
Social networking profiles should be customised to allow only certain "friends" access to information, and strict guidelines by schools are needed on what constitutes appropriate behaviour.
67% - The proportion of children using the internet who have their own social networking profile.
11% - Proportion of children who have sent an image of themselves to someone they have never met.
WHAT TO DO IF A PUPIL RAISES CONCERNS
If approached by children concerned about pictures of themselves on the internet:
- inform your school's head for child protection. Do not save or forward the image - equally, do not delete it until local police have agreed;
- consider involving the school's police liaison officer for advice on the legalities and removal of the image;
- inform the child's parents;
- discuss with the young person the "digital footprint" of the image;
- in line with child protection and police procedures, ask all the young people in possession of the image to delete it. If the image has been forwarded outside the school environment, contact the appropriate people and request that they follow the same steps;
- if the image is online, contact the service provider to have it removed;
- run an education assemblyclass to highlight the issue. CEOP's awareness film Exposed is based on the issue of sexting and self-taken images www.thinkuknow.co.ukteachers;
- consider in-house counselling and discuss contacting ChildLine;
- if the issue has gone beyond this, report directly to CEOP at the following site - www.clickceop.police.uk
Advice from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre
GEOLOCATION - ONE TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Increasingly, smart phones and handheld devices allow children to access their social networking profiles online and, through applications like Facebook Places, let their friends know their exact location at all times.
This poses an obvious risk for young people, especially as many of them are "friends" with people they have never met.
Augmented reality applications, such as Layar, use the smartphone camera to search for buildings and places that meet search criteria for things like restaurants, bars or hotels. Newer forms of this allow you to do the same with people in your proximity by using social networking sites. If there are people nearby with their Twitter account turned on and location services open, a location-aware smartphone can pick them up and provide you with all the information publicly available on their profile. Location services on most smartphones are, by default, turned on, and have to be turned off.
Already, early-stage forms of face recognition technology are being trialled, which will eventually allow people to point their phone at someone's face and instantly retrieve information such as their age, name, or interests.
A stranger could hold up their phone, identify children nearby, and approach them with the ability to address them by their name.
"This is a heads-up for professionals," says Helen King from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. "It is new technology. It is going to be popular with young people, because children like new stuff."
Original headline: Internet can entangle both pupils and teachers in its web
Related article: Attacks increase as school bullies turn to cyberspace