Do you feel overwhelmed when you think about the dangers that exist for young (and not so young) people in the online world? The landscape of our social media and virtual lives is constantly developing and changing, and even for the most tech-savvy of parents, it can be hard to keep up with the new platforms and how our children are using them. We are the first generation of parents and teachers to navigate this world of ubiquitous smartphones and social media with our young people, and feeling we are doing enough to keep them safe is tough.
As Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) at Senior School Voorschoten, The British School in The Netherlands, I see online safety coming increasingly into the work I do because, just like for adults, young people’s lives are increasingly online. We want to empower our young people to use technology confidently whilst keeping themselves and others safe at the same time.
This year we have run more workshops and discussion groups to support our parent community in keeping their children safe online at home. I would like to share our current approach, tips, and some resources that our community have found particularly valuable on this topic.
Start Conversations about Online Safety
Just as you taught your child how to safely cross the street or wear a seatbelt in the car, talking to your child about staying safe online is essential. Similarly to when a child is learning to read and is encouraged to read for short periods on a daily basis, it is a topic that you will want to come back to regularly for brief check-ins.
- Invite questions from your child and reassure them that if issues arise, you will be there to support them.
- Make it a two-way conversation. Ask your child what they enjoy doing online or what kinds of videos they enjoy watching on YouTube. Give them the chance to teach you something new. You will gain more insight into what they are doing on their devices, and it’s an opportunity to connect over their interests.
- You know your child, and depending on their age, you are best positioned to know what topics are appropriate and how detailed you need to be. InternetMatters offers advice for parents based on the child’s age, including an internet safety checklist, helpful resources, and online safety activities to do together.
- If you set restrictions or guidelines on how your child uses the internet and devices, be clear about why you feel these are necessary – negotiate them wherever possible and be open to hearing their perspective. Your child may disagree and might not like the boundaries you set, but that’s okay. Ultimately, you are the parent, and just as you set guidelines to protect their physical safety, you should feel confident about protecting their safety online.
In the student assemblies, we ran some activities that drew on classic metaphors to show how you lose control of your words once they are online. The idea is that even on platforms where messages disappear like Snapchat or WhatsApp, if someone takes a screenshot of the message, that message can get shared in unintended ways.
To visualise this, we sprayed deodorant into the air and showed the students that it was impossible to put it back once it was out of the can. The scent from the deodorant, just like messages or images that are shared online, disseminated around the hall – a clear representation of how fast and how far these can travel once we have lost control of them – and that we can never predict who may see them and what their intentions may be.
Use the Opportunity to Connect
As a parent, it is likely that screens and time online are some of the main sources of conflict in your household. If so, you are not alone. However, it’s also possible to use this challenging topic to connect and strengthen your relationship with your child. The Senior School Voorschoten Counsellors have shared some advice on how to do this.
- Consider how you respond to your child’s views:
- Listen to your child actively.
- When your child comes to you to talk, if possible, stop what you are doing and focus entirely on what they are saying.
- Validate their feelings.
- Manage your emotions. The goal is to let your child know that they can come to you and share.
- Consider what your child needs from you:
- Show trust when you can (if someone is in a dangerous situation, explain to your child that you will need to let the appropriate people know).
- Maintain your authority but be willing to explain your reasons.
- Give praise.
- Work together with your child:
- Find an activity to do together.
- Share regular meals.
- Be observant.
Create a Family Agreement
Many families find it helpful to create a family agreement regarding devices, screentime and the internet. While it may sound overly formal to have a contract in place, it forces you to clarify and specify your expectations for how your child uses their devices and be consistent and predictable in following through. Furthermore, by working on the agreement with your child, they have a voice and are less likely to feel that these guidelines are arbitrary.
- You can find templates for digital family agreements at Childnet and InternetMatters that you can edit or use as inspiration.
The truth is that it is not only our children and young people that are increasingly engaged and drawn to screens, social media and spending time online. Many of us needed to be online more for work in the last two years. During lockdowns, devices, social media, online messaging and video calls were how we connected and communicated with people outside of our houses. Devices and this online world are engaging (precisely what they are designed to be!). When you consider how much time is appropriate for your child to be online, you may want to think about what behaviour you are modelling in this area.
Talk to your child about how you interact with others and how you decide what to share and post. Students learn about the dangers of fake news and using reliable information sources, but this message can be reinforced by seeing examples of what appears in your social media feed.
Inform Yourself about Staying Safe Online
The data and statistics can be scary, but coming to grips with invasions of privacy, identity theft, persuasive design, and dangerous online behaviours is the best way to protect yourself and your family. For example, there are some simple ways to keep your data more secure:
- Location services and metadata – You will ensure that the device’s precise location is not being shared unintentionally by turning off Location Services on devices and for individual apps. Many people are unaware that when a photo is shared on social media, if Location Services is not turned off on the device’s camera, metadata can be extracted from the image determining the precise location where the photo was taken.
- Online quizzes – Most of us envision hackers as they are portrayed on television: people sitting in an industrial space furiously working to break into bank accounts. In reality, hackers don’t need to work very hard to get personal information. Many people give their data away by “playing” online “games” or taking online “tests” or “quizzes” that require personal information.
- Network settings – Isn’t it convenient when you can join an open WiFi network? Well, it’s also convenient for people who are looking for easy access to your personal information.
Beyond increasing your awareness, you can find out how online safety is addressed at your child’s school. It will likely be covered in the curriculum, so ask for the topics covered, and you can build on these at home. You should also find out which staff member oversees safeguarding and who students or parents should speak to if they have a concern.
If you have an older child, it is also helpful to find out where the boundaries lie between schools’ and families’ responsibilities. Is the school likely to get involved if a young person does something on their family’s device, out of school hours and off-campus, using the family Wi-Fi? At Senior School Voorschoten, we decided that we should work in as close a partnership as possible with our families and the local community and deal with any difficulties as they arose.
Helpful Resources for Online Safety
As we have been developing how we can best support the young people in our care and their families, these are the resources that we consult when it comes to online safety.
- Better Internet for Kids: A comprehensive online safety resource for parents, students and schools in the European Union (EU).
- Common Sense Media: This is an excellent website and resource for parents of children and teenagers. You can find age recommendations for apps, websites, movies and television shows for younger children. For parents of older kids and teenagers, there is information about social media platforms, gaming sites and dangerous online behaviours.
- Safer Internet: You will find a wide range of helpful information. We particularly like the social media guides.
- Internet Matters: In addition to specific information about various online issues, advice by age, setting controls, guides and resources, and news, there is a section on the latest research and reports regarding online safety.
Online Safety is an Ongoing Area of Work
How people use social media and the internet will continue to evolve, which means supporting our young people to stay safe and take precautions is an ongoing area of work. There are very real dangers for young people online, and understandably, it is an area of concern for parents. However, I believe that by schools and families working together, we can equip our young people with the knowledge, skills, and resilience they need to navigate the online world.
James has over 20 years of experience as a teacher, teacher trainer and senior leader in a range of schools in the UK, Spain and now at The British School in The Netherlands. In addition to his classroom experience as a teacher of Modern Foreign Languages and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to students aged 3 to 18 and adults, he authored a series of textbooks for Primary School learners of English as a Foreign Language in Spain. James is passionate about promoting lifelong learning, especially in Languages, and loves spending time with his two children. He is an avid football and music fan.