Why even primaries need a social media safety net

20th November 2015 at 00:00
As young children increasingly share explicit images online, we must protect them

“Slut.”

It’s not a word you expect to hear in a primary school, especially from one of your most mature and responsible students. It has taken about 10 minutes to coax Ella out of the toilets and wait for the tears to subside and, as soon as they do, I feel immediately out of my depth.

“Aaron says that I’m a big slut and that everyone else thinks so too.”

Aaron is promptly hauled out of his lesson by the headteacher. His defence? “I shouldn’t have said that word but it’s not my fault she posts those pictures.”

What I thought would be a routine shoulder rub and “back to lesson” is fast becoming a full-blown investigation. It transpires that the pictures were posted on social media and are available for the whole world to see. Ten-year-old Ella, the deputy head informs me, is in skimpy nightclothes, pouting at the full-length mirror in her bedroom. She asks me if I want to see. I don’t. I want to be back in my classroom teaching improper fractions.

As the day rolls on, it becomes clear that Ella is not the only child posting pictures of themselves on the internet. Most of the Year 6s have profiles on various social media sites, and common themes quickly emerge: bedroom selfies, swearing at the camera, explicit lyrics from rap songs.

I simply cannot believe that these are the same children in my class, the same children who play “it” in the playground and make loom band bracelets during golden time.

One step behind

Social media and e-safety is not a new challenge for schools and parents, but it’s a battle in which the adults always seem one step behind. Like many schools, we’ve brought in parents for workshops to discuss the dangers of the internet, but the sessions are poorly attended. When Ella’s parents arrive at school to discuss the photos, they are shocked but resigned. After all, the other kids seem to be doing these internet things, and no parent wants to condemn their child to social ostracism at a time when friends are becoming so important.

For schools, it’s a particularly tricky issue. The “offences” are committed at home, but the fallout often spills into the playground.

Teachers are wary of telling parents how to do their job. Then there is the added complexity of simply raising the issue with parents, as it shows that the school has viewed these photos online. As a male primary teacher, this makes me especially uncomfortable, expecting a career-ending accusation of: “Well, just what were you doing looking at these pictures in the first place?”

The very nature of such websites creates a perfect honeytrap for image-conscious, popularity-seeking children and teens. Most sites have an emphasis on posting photos which can be “liked”, and the implicit aim is to gain as many followers as possible.

A quick search of the most followed celebrities reveals the tactic most successful in elevating your profile.

Take a moment to Google “Miley Cyrus Instagram” if you would like a clearer picture, but I warn you that the images aren’t safe for work. The message is loud and clear: if you want to be liked, take off your clothes.

‘Irresistible for children’

The solutions are neither straightforward nor obvious. It would be tempting to dive into a blanket condemnation, clearly spelling out the risks to the children.

Such an approach misses the point spectacularly – what makes the sites so irresistible in the first place is that adults don’t like or understand them.

And if you think that telling a young person that something is risky will be taken as anything other than a challenge, then I don’t believe you’ve ever worked with young people (or even been one).

I’m no technophobe, but the very idea of primary children posting pictures of themselves online blindsided me. The associated misogyny, which seemed a perfectly natural response for young Aaron, was almost as depressing as young girls being efficiently conditioned into a role of being eye candy and having their value determined by what others think about how they look.

Add to this the fact that the internet suffers from hypermnesia – it never forgets.

As we have learned the hard way, if you find yourself having a conversation with children about photos on the internet then you’re already too late.

The first step in dealing with a problem is admitting that you have one, and non-judgemental communication lines must be opened between adults and children about what they get up to online.

Schools should share with children the benefits of interacting online alongside the dangers, with realistic tips on how pupils can stay safe if they choose to visit these sites.

Having said this, the owners of the sites and internet service providers must take greater responsibility. Yes, parents should set and monitor restrictions on their children’s internet use (whether on laptops, tablets or phones), but it is not acceptable for companies making millions to simply hold up their hands and protest that their own age limits are unenforceable.

What is clear is that more guidance is needed for both teachers and parents. The problem is real, and far too many of us are feeling around in the dark for a correct response.

All names, including that of the author, have been changed to preserve anonymity

Message from the NSPCC: ‘It’s just the tip of the iceberg’

While many teachers and parents will be shocked that primary school children are sharing inappropriate photos of themselves online, this is an issue we hear about regularly through ChildLine, writes Claire Lilley, the NSPCC’s head of child safety online.

The ChildLine service provided 1,300 counselling sessions with children on this issue last year. We think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The technology is not going away so one challenge is to educate children about the risks of sharing images of themselves, as they often don’t really think about the consequences.

Children may see sharing these photos as harmless fun but they can leave them vulnerable to blackmail and bullying or, worse still, attract the attention of sex offenders as the images created may get shared extensively online.

But education is only one part of the solution. Social media companies have to start taking responsibility for what is posted on their sites and take action to protect children.

The NSPCC has developed new teaching resources so that teachers can educate children to be Share Aware when posting images online. You can download them from TES at bit.ly/TESshare

The charity also has a free helpline for parents with questions about online safety. Call 0808 800 5002.

Handling an online incident

The NSPCC has issued teaching resources to help school staff educate children about sharing images online. These include the following guidance for teachers in the event of a student disclosing that something has happened to them online:

Treat the incident as seriously as you would if it happened offline.

Actively listen. Do not look shocked or disbelieving. Stay calm.

Take what they are saying seriously. Do not ask for detail.

Reassure the student that they are doing the right thing in reporting the incident.

Do not promise to keep secrets.

Tell the young person that you will have to share this information.

Explain what will happen next.

Make sure you are familiar with your child protection procedures.

Record the information as quickly as possible – facts, not opinion.

Sign and date everything you record.

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