Three steps to keep pupils safe from harmful relationships online

Pastoral leaders need to take a proactive, rather than a reactive approach to keeping pupils safe online, says this e-safety coordinator

Maria O'Neill

News article image

Pastoral leaders are no longer simply dealing with straightforward playground issues. As digital technology becomes a greater part of pupils' lives, we now have to investigate incidents that have not taken place at school, but outside of school walls and hours, often in the comfort of our pupils’ homes. The variety and complexity of online incidents vary greatly: anything from a pupil being ignored in a chat room to online bullying (including fake profiles and stalking), sexting, pornography, grooming and radicalisation.

We are spending a lot of time being reactive in dealing with the aftermath of digital relationships going wrong. But what if we were to instead focus on preparing our young people for the digital world and on empowering them to create and sustain positive relationships? If we can teach pupils not to engage with unhealthy situations or relationships online in the first place, then we can stop being reactive and start taking a more proactive approach. Here are three steps in the right direction.

1. Develop awareness

In order to respond to risk, pupils need to be able to recognise it. It is important for pupils to be aware and mindful of the following signs of unhealthy relationships:

  • Feeling the pressure to change.
  • Feeling the pressure to do something you don’t want to do.
  • Feeling you have to hide things, be secretive.
  • Having to justify your actions.
  • Making it difficult to maintain relationships with family or friends.
  • Lack of common friends.
  • Lack of respect for each other’s family.
  • Verbal, emotional or physical abuse (using the ‘silent treatment’, disappearing, name-calling, etc).
  • Controlling behaviours (excessive calling, texting, stalking, lack of privacy, etc).

Most of these signs can be easily applied to real life situations as well as the digital world. Parents and schools need to be working in partnership to educate young people about healthy and unhealthy relationships and how to recognise the signs. At the same time, although educating about the risk is a necessary preventative measure, it is not enough. It is important that young people act on this awareness. In order to do this, they need to act from the position of mental and emotional strength and be prepared to break unhealthy attachments.

2. Nurture mental health and wellbeing

It is when we are feeling vulnerable that we are more likely to engage in unhealthy relationships in our conscious or unconscious search to satisfy basic human needs, such as the need for belonging and acceptance and the need to feel valued and secure. Empowering young people to look after their mental health and wellbeing and creating secure environments at school and at home should be our number one priority.

3. Develop a moral compass and strong values

Healthy behaviours are underpinned by values and morals. This is especially true when forming positive digital behaviours and healthy relationships, as we should expect our young people to uphold the same standard of behaviour online as in real life, acting with integrity at all times. Schools must make every effort to include character education as an integral, natural part of school life. It needs to be reflected in the school ethos and values and incorporated into all parts of the day-to-day school life and routine, because “everything in a school’s moral life affects character, for good or for ill” (Gelpi; 2008).

Maria O’Neill is an advanced skills teacher, e-safety co-ordinator and head of PSHE. She is also a wellbeing coach, PhD student researching wellbeing and personal development, and founder of @HealthyToolkitand @UKPastoralChat

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Maria O'Neill


Maria O’Neill is an advanced Skills Teacher, eSafety co-ordinator and Head of PSHE. Wellbeing coach, PhD student researching wellbeing and personal development, founder of @HealthyToolkit and @UKPastoralChat.


Latest stories

Coronavirus: Partial vaccination of ASN staff 'is putting pupils at risk'

Gillick competence: What schools need to know

You may not have heard of the ‘Gillick competence’ but it may well be used by pupils to accept or reject the Covid vaccine – here’s what schools should be aware of
Andrew Banks 23 Sep 2021
teacher cyber bullying

Are you a bystander to bullying?

Workplace bullying is often not just about those directly involved, but about those who are looking on, too, finds Grainne Hallahan
Grainne Hallahan 22 Sep 2021