Online safety: Do we focus too much on the dark side of the web?

What’s the first thing you think about when someone mentions online and children?

Usually it’s a negative with visions of a dark shadowy world full of cyberbullies and predators. I’ve battled against the dark side since 1998 when, as an outraged teacher, I sought to get involved with cleaning up the web. I’m sure you have similar concerns.

Much of our disquiet comes from the instinct to protect our children and young people from harm but along with it can come a sense of being overwhelmed by the number of new technologies leaving us behind and the potential for abuse increasing.

But what about those who are responsible for the safeguarding of hundreds of children and young people? A lack of knowledge isn’t any defence for those who work in educational institutions.

Ofsted is increasingly concerned with online safety with its focus on radicalisation and British values and wants to see just how seriously education settings, schools and organisations are taking the online safety agenda.

So, how prepared are our schools and early years settings for this? How do we ensure we have in place the right processes and policies; a protected infrastructure; regular training and updates for the school community; and e-safety delivered within the curriculum?

Best Practice Network has a lot of experience in the area of safeguarding and safer recruitment and one tool we recommend is the South West Grid for Learning’s (SWGfL) free 360 degree online safety audit. Over 7,000 schools and organisations have used this tool and their report shows that while schools’ online policies are strong in areas like filtering and acceptable use agreements they do have a number of alarming weaknesses, mostly exacerbated by time, lack of funding and workload.

Top 5 online safeguarding policy weaknesses

  • Community engagement
  • Demonstrating impact of policy and practice
  • Governor training
  • Staff training
  • Setting up cross-community e-safety groups consisting of staff, governors, community, students etc

These findings are validated in part by a presentation given by David Brown, HMI National Lead for Computing and Child Internet Safety, covering the results of a survey of online safety practice carried out during all HMI-led section 5 school inspections during March 2015.

So why do schools find the implementation of these areas so difficult? I suggest that partly it is because students, teachers and parents have been inundated with bad news focusing on the dark side of the web, and this makes them want to avoid engaging with online safety issues as it just confirms this negative view.

Is there a solution? Well, there’s no quick fix but perhaps a step forward would be to rethink how we approach online safety. Talking to other professionals in the arena, it’s interesting that there is a shift away from dwelling on the negative and a move towards a more balanced approach including a focus on the positive aspects of the web. Try searching for ‘cyber wellness’ and see what turns up.

There is a concerted attempt to put the fear factor of the dark side of the web into proper perspective and to also focus on what is good and helpful in the online environment. Accentuating the positive could balance out the fear factor and may draw in more people who previously associated online safety with outrage and powerlessness.

One school I visited recently was a great example of a positive approach. They ran a bring your own device evening where the community could bring their smartphones, tablets and other handhelds and they helped each other set the privacy settings on various social media sites and looked at some useful sites.

Another example is the Post It Positive campaign, which encourages children and adults to post positive rather than negative messages to each other.

And another school ran a ‘Hackerthon’ event where children and parents developed an app to promote positive thinking. As part of the process they considered the issues of privacy settings, preventing piracy of the technology and any safety features needed.

Of course it is essential that we have the policies and practices for web use in place along with strong warnings about content and contact but this does need to be balanced with promotion of the positive and a focus on cyber wellness. If we do that then we might have a way of getting governors and the wider school community much more involved in this crucially important area.

Tim McShane
Lead Online Learning Facilitator, Best Practice Network

Best Practice Network offers inspection briefings and safer recruitment training that include help and advice for schools on addressing online safety.

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