Making online life safer for pupils

Written by: Anna Feuchtwang | Published:
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive, National Children’s Bureau

How should teachers’ work in the classroom act alongside legislation to ensure children can enjoy a safer internet? Anna Feuchtwang discusses

The battle to make the internet a safer place for children and young people has two crucial fronts – and we’re gaining ground on both of them.

First, there’s the classroom. The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) recently gave evidence to an inquiry by the Science and Technology Select Committee on the impact of social media and screen-time on young people’s health. Among all the organisations attending the evidence session there was unanimous agreement that online safety must be taught in schools.

We are counting down to September 2019 when relationships and sex education (RSE) becomes statutory, with a stronger focus on equipping children and young people to build healthy relationships online and negotiate the risks that involves.

Through the Sex Education Forum and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, NCB is already supporting schools to develop their practice to prepare for the changes.

In our work with young people to prepare for the evidence session, familiar issues came to the fore. On the bright side, young people emphasised how social media helped them connect and communicate with others, providing a source of self-expression and creativity. On the dark side, they spoke about the pressures of presenting a perfect image online; of bullying at school morphing into cyber-bullying which widens the audience and deepens the misery; and the pressures of the never-ending quest for enough likes, enough friends, enough positive feedback.

In education, a balanced and proactive approach that recognises the potential positive and negative impact of social media is essential if we are to successfully build children’s awareness of these factors.

Updating RSE is an opportunity to build critical-thinking skills into the curriculum so that children can recognise advertising techniques, stereotypes (such as gender stereotypes) and their impact, and be empowered to make independent and safe choices online and offline.

To make learning relevant, it is important that digital contexts are reflected in the scenarios, case-studies and resources used in RSE and broader PSHE education. The classroom then becomes a safe space to “practise” and anticipate situations that can arise online, to gain knowledge of rights and responsibilities, and to know where to find reliable sources of help and health information.

Good quality RSE, as part of broader PSHE, promotes digital literacy. This is a core principle within the 5Rights framework – a rights-based approach to improving digital technologies for children that could provide inspiration for reforms.

The objective of digital literacy is that children are able to understand the purposes and characteristics of the technology they use; it supports them to grow up as contributors and creators as well as informed consumers of digital technology, and to have a clear grasp of the social outcomes of their online behaviour.

This kind of approach not only enables children to navigate the risks they encounter but also to see how the choices they make minute-to-minute, smartphone in hand, can have a lasting effect on others. After all, it is often the behaviour of digital “bystanders” who like, share and consume hurtful material online that makes cyber-bullying so potent.

That is why during Anti-Bullying Week this November, we’re inviting children and young people to “Choose Respect” – emphasising that bullying behaviour, whether online or face-to-face, is a choice and that children and young people have the power to choose positive and respectful interactions with others instead.

While quality RSE and whole-school approaches to issues such as bullying and mental health can help children to navigate the risks they encounter in the digital world, legislation has an important role to play in limiting the risks associated with these choices, balancing the need for freedom with the need to keep children safe, and ensuring the odds of navigating these choices safely aren’t stacked against children and young people. This involves tackling what the NSPCC recently described as the “Wild West Web” – the aspects of the internet which are unregulated and where children are exposed to legal and illegal harms.

That’s why every organisation at the evidence session also agreed that the social media industry needs to do more to protect children and young people. And that’s why it is such welcome news that the government is committed to bringing in new online safety laws. A White Paper due to be published later this year will set out legislation to address the risks children are exposed to online, from cyber-bullying to sexual exploitation.

Effective legislation and high-quality education must go hand-in-hand. New risks in online behaviour will appear as quickly as legislation tackles existing ones. Through quality RSE and PSHE in schools we can equip children to navigate those risks wherever they appear, grounded in self-respect and respect for others.

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau.

Further information

  • The NCB’s evidence to the Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into the effects social media and screen-time on young people’s health is available at http://bit.ly/2MuhsJB
  • For more about the 5Rights Framework, visit https://5rightsframework.com/


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