How can you empower your whole school community to ‘make space’ for conversations with students about safety online?

Katherine Howard, Smoothwall’s Head of Education and Engagement, shares with us why it’s so important for school communities to come together to create a safer internet, by encouraging their students to speak up about what’s going on in their online world.

Why is it so important for schools to encourage students to have conversations about their safety online?

Online technology is now so deeply entrenched in the lives of our children and young people – they continue to spend more time using the internet at school, at home, or on the go. This activity brings with it exposure to inherent risks that place them in harm’s way. Risks that can impact a student’s overall safety and wellbeing.

With this in mind, it’s vitally important that we create an environment where students feel able to have conversations with grown-ups about what’s going on in their online lives. So if there are any concerns, they can receive the early help and support they need.

What sort of risks might students face online?

The risks students face online can be wide-ranging. Students may be victims of online grooming, influenced by content relating to self-harm or experience online bullying. Sadly, we know that online bullying affects nearly 1 in 5 children in the UK. These sorts of risks can easily fall under the radar.

The evolving nature of the online world also brings new risks that stem from social media or gaming trends and influencers. Recently, Andrew Tate, a social media influencer, published content that promotes violence towards women. Alarmingly, it has amassed over 12.4 billion views on TikTok alone. It has the power to shape the behaviours and perceptions of children and young people.

Why might students not want to talk about negative online experiences with
a grown-up?

If a student is a victim of online bullying, for example, they might fear what the perpetrator’s next steps will be if they voice any concerns. If a student is a victim of online grooming, they may feel embarrassed or humiliated about speaking up, and may even blame themselves.

Sometimes students might want to speak to a grown-up but worry that this will result in negative consequences. For example, they may fear that if they share what’s happened with a parent, their phone will be taken off them.

Victim blaming is another common barrier. This is when a child is blamed for something negative that has happened online. A parent might say; ‘I told you not to go on YouTube!’ This approach can create an instant barrier to future communication between the adult and the child.

How can school safeguarding leads help their school community to overcome these barriers and encourage open conversations with children and young people about
online safety?

We need to start by empowering the whole school community, including school staff and parents to enter into non-judgemental conversations with children. This might involve asking the child questions such as; ‘have you heard about the latest TikTok trend?’ or ‘how does it make you feel when you watch that video?’. We need to genuinely explore their thoughts and perspectives, to elicit honest and open responses.

Smart devices aren’t going away any time soon. So, rather than parents threatening to ban devices if there’s a concern, we need to educate parents on ways they can proactively manage their child’s online activity. This might include implementing parental controls and encouraging parents to explain to the child why they are being put in place.

What tools can school safeguarding leads use to encourage school staff and parents to promote online safety amongst students?

There are a variety of ways school safeguarders can engage and educate the wider school community in order to help keep students digitally safe and well. Schools may consider professional digital safeguarding courses for school staff and parents to empower them to promote safety online amongst students.

There are also dedicated online resource hubs available, with useful information for you to drip-feed to members of your wider school community, for example, the NSPCC and has lots of useful resources available. In addition to in-person conversations, which are vitally important, parent safety apps such as Qustodio, can also help parents to keep their children safe online.

For students that find in-person conversations difficult, digital wellbeing apps such as Smoothwall Pulse can also encourage students to speak up about how they are feeling, and encourage them to discreetly reach out to school staff for support.

At Smoothwall we’re on a mission to make it as easy as possible for safeguarding leads to spot students at serious risk online. Click here to book a free discussion with a Smoothwall Digital Safeguarding Specialist, to find out how we can help to support you in keeping students safe and well online.

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