Understanding online behaviour: tips for secondary school teachers

Dr. Kathryn WestonBy Dr. Kathryn Weston

Understand how teens are behaving online

An exponential growth in online activity amongst young people has been a hallmark of the last decade. We know that the amount of time young people spend online has trebled in the past 11 years.1 A report by Ofcom (2014) tells us that 34% of 5-15 year olds now have their own tablet, rather than using devices belonging to their parents or school.2

Unsurprisingly, increasing usage generates increased risks. Young people are vulnerable to unwanted attention, exposure to upsetting or harmful material, cyber-bullying, and the threat of online sexual exploitation.

Young people regularly engage with peers using a range of apps for many social reasons; ‘sexting’ and producing ‘selfies’ rate high as some of the most popular activities amongst this group.3 Teens are engaging with strangers online too. This can be intentional in many cases; a third of children play games online against people they haven’t met in person.4

Ofcom also points out that one third of 12-15s with a social networking profile in 2013 had it set so that it could be potentially viewed by people unknown to them. Unwanted requests are not uncommon; 60% of teens report that they have been asked for a sexual image or video of themselves at some point.5 The potential for exploitation as a result of online sharing is high. Ofcom found that reports of cyberbullying had increased by 87% between 2012 and 2013.

Encourage "digital hygiene" and "digital citizenship"

Teachers need to convey the basic concept of ‘digital hygiene’ to their pupils. At its root, this involves understanding how to navigate online activity safely and sensibly. It means understanding the permanency of what they post online in any format and the implications of leaving a "digital tattoo". It means understanding what constitutes appropriate online behaviour. Every young person needs to be made aware of the potential implications of their online interactions socially, emotionally and in terms of their future professional life.

Like the great outdoors, there are risks aplenty, but young people simply need to be made aware of them and have the skill-set to negotiate them. I particularly like the Scout movement’s new ‘digital manifesto’ that helpfully conveys key values of digital citizenship and also how young people can be taught to use technology as a tool for learning about, and engaging with, the world around them.

Being a ‘good digital citizen’ is about making a valuable contribution to online life, respecting and valuing the views of others and modelling good usage. Teachers can help by flagging these issues and always modelling secure practices when engaging with digital technology. In this way, pupils can learn to keep themselves and their devices safe.

See parents as "partners"

Without effective partnership between parents and school, young people can be vulnerable to the risks. Parents need to be reminded that ‘digital hygiene’ begins at home and continues into school. Plenty of easy-to-follow e-guides and video resources are available to parents that schools can signpost:

Despite both teachers’ and parents’ attempts to keep them safe, young people can easily bypass filters.6 Schools need to keep abreast of how such breaches can occur and if possible let parents know about them.

Arguably, the most effective tool in both the parental and professional toolkit for keeping young people safe online is open and honest conversation. Adults need to feel comfortable having exploratory conversations with young people about why they like particular games and websites, and the best ways of engaging with them. Young people need to know that adults will listen to any worries or disclosures relating to their digital life, and help them work through occasional mishaps.

Avoiding honest conversations may mean exposing young people to further risk. As one expert in adolescence points out: “if parents and teachers aren’t the source of credible information, the internet will be.7 This is borne out by recent NSPCC research where 36% of teenagers preferred to use the internet to find out about sex and relationships. Only 12% asked their parents.8 Younger pupils, in particular, need to be made aware of how to report anything that they have viewed online which may be ‘upsetting’: http://www.thinkuknow.co.uk/11_13/help/Contact-social-sites/

Remember, that your pupils are among the first explorers in an ever-changing digital landscape and need help navigating through waters; in many cases unchartered by adults!

Be mindful of the Law

There is no specific legal duty owed by teachers in relation to pupils’ online activity, but there is a duty to safeguard pupils (schools are at risk of vicarious liability in negligence for any harm to a pupil they fail to safeguard). Where no harm is suffered, it is unlikely that a school could be successfully sued for negligence.

Technological advances mean cyber bullying is increasingly common, and schools should have clear policies about how they plan to safeguard pupils from this online threat.

S.89 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 says that every school must have measures to prevent bullying. These measures should include a policy on appropriate internet use.

Schools can block websites to prevent pupils gaining access to anything inappropriate and should consider a holistic approach to internet safety by involving parents to also educate pupils about the perils of online harm9.

Access online classroom resources

Key-stage specific information relating to all aspects of digital activity is readily available online via some fantastic websites. They have done the work for you – so get downloading!

Get "skilled up"

A wide variety of organisations offer training to educators who wish to refresh their knowledge in this ever-changing area. Many of the courses are free!

CEOP offers the ‘Ambassador course’ and the ‘Thinkuknow Introduction’ for those who work directly with children and young people. They also offer an e-learning course in partnership with the NSPCC.

This e-learning course will help you to think about the issues that young people face online and the challenge that you have as a professional to protect and educate them. Developed with CEOP, the course cost is £20.

E-safety Support
An online subscription service that offers everything you need to deliver consistent e-safety practice across your school to keep your pupils safe online and meet Ofsted requirements.

Parenting in the Digital Age
The Parenting in the Digital Age programme trains professionals to become facilitators for parent focussed sessions about taking offline parenting skills online.

The education team run internet safety sessions for pupils, parents and carers, and staff in schools.

        1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/mediatechnologyandtelecoms/digital-media/11597743/Teenagers-spend-27-hours-a-week-online-how-internet-use-has-ballooned-in-the-last-decade.html
        2. Ofcom Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report (Oct 2014) See: http://media.ofcom.org.uk/news/2015/cmr-uk-2015/
        3. In one study undertaken in Sweden, young people’s motivations for sending images included: part of a romantic or sexual relationship; trusting the other person; getting affirmation for the way they looked; flirting, being excited and having fun. See: http://www.spirto.health.ed.ac.uk/download/website_files/SPIRTO_Summary_20InterviewsAnalysis_FINAL.pdf
        4. Ofcom Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report (Oct 2014) p.85, Fig. 52
        5. Ofcom Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report (Oct 2014) p.117, Fig. 78 Childline (2014).
        6. They can do so by using free VPN (Virtual Private Network) services such as Betternet, CyberGhost or SurfEasy.
        7. This remark was made in conversation with the author. Professor Fiona Brooks is currently the Professor of Adolescence at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. http://www.uts.edu.au/staff/fiona.brooks
        8. NSPCC survey amongst 601 young people aged 11-18 commissioned by The Daily Telegraph (2013)
        9. For more detailed information on this see: http://www.neves-solicitors.co.uk/site/blog/responsibilities-of-schools-to-keep-children-safe-online

          About Dr. Kathryn Weston
          Dr. Kathryn Weston is an independent researcher and motivational speaker in the areas of education, parenting and family life. As the founder of Keystone Aspire she delivers talks and workshops in schools to parents and young people that encourage an aspirational approach to life and learning. Dr Weston believes in a partnership approach between parents, young people and educational settings, as this is how children are most able to thrive and reach their potential. Since 2011, Dr Weston has co-produced and presented over 300 episodes of "The Parents Show" on Radio Verulam 92.6FM, and interviewed some of the biggest names in the world of education.

          Follow Dr Kathy on Twitter @parentengage
          Email: keystoneaspire@gmail.com