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Why is e-safety important in schools?

Tuesday, 1 August 2023 by Weduc

The importance of e-safety in schools

Today’s young people are growing up as digital natives, meaning they spend huge portions of their lives in the online world. And with an ever increasing hoard of social media platforms vying for their attention, from TikTok to Meta and the newly launched Threads, the online world is crawling with risks and challenges that young people and their guardians need to contend with.

Of course, the internet is no longer something that pupils just interact with at home. During the pandemic, the internet hosted the majority of their learning – an astonishing feat in accessibility that only further accelerated the role of the online world in education. But for all its positives in aiding learning and engaging young people, schools also need to be aware of how to practice e-safety (online safety) in schools.

Not only will this safeguard young people on school premises, but it will equip them with good practices that they can also take home with them.


Understanding online safety for schools

According to a recent survey, more than two-thirds of teenagers would like schools to provide more support with online safety issues, such as cyberbullying. E-safety and having an online safety policy in schools is particularly important because school age children on the internet are uniquely vulnerable. Not only are online predators a risk factor but so are other children.

Consider the fact that playground bullying no longer stays on the playground; bullies can now follow their victims home. It’s no wonder, then, that a recent study found that Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all led to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image, and loneliness. Add to this the fact that further research has linked anxiety and depression to lower academic scores, and the issue of e-safety in schools is now such a pressing matter that The Department for Education (DfE) created the 2019 ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ (KCSIE) legislation.


But what is online safety in schools?

So what is e-safety in schools? Potentially confused with cybersecurity, which refers to the safety of devices and networks, e-safety or online safety is the act of protecting people using the internet from harm. As a result, e-safety requires an awareness of potential threats - such as security threats, risks involving personal data, and harmful or illegal content – so that steps can be taken to manage them.

These steps take the form of online safety policies and practices designed to prevent and mitigate the risks that are inherently involved with using the internet. Some of these practices are educational, giving pupils and teachers the information they need to recognise inappropriate content and cyberbullying, among other risks. And some are more practical tips, such as keeping laptop and desktop cameras covered up, and carefully monitoring GPS permissions to protect young peoples’ locations.


Four main types of e-safety risks

  1. Content risk

In short, this refers to inappropriate content for young people. This may include violent images, sexual or pornographic content, and violent video games. Essentially, any content that a young person may not understand, may be beyond their age range, or may cause them distress is considered a content risk.

  1. Contact risk

Any personal information that children might share with others online is considered a contact risk. For example, their home address, the school they go to, or their mobile phone number. Sharing these details may result in the child coming into contact with a person they have met on the internet. A person who may even be an adult posing as another child to get this information from them.

  1. Conduct risk

When children use the internet as a tool for bullying, this is considered a conduct risk. For example, sending offensive or hateful messages on social media. This risk is primarily focused on the way young people conduct themselves on the internet and whether this contributes to increased hostility in a face to face environment.

  1. Contract risk

These days, from the moment you enter a website you have to agree to cookies and consent to various terms and conditions. Children are generally not equipped to understand these contracts and they are highly likely to accept them without understanding them. This is a risk factor because children are not considered to have the competency to make these decisions, yet they are decisions that the internet inherently requires them to make.


How do we protect pupils from these threats?

By informing them. Many of these risks can be avoided by teaching online safety in schools, helping young understand what is appropriate, what is not appropriate, and the risks involved in sharing personal information with people they don’t know.

Most importantly, children need to understand why these risks matter. This is because children’s brains are not fully developed. In fact, the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for planning, prioritising, and making good decisions, isn’t fully developed until our late 20’s. This means that children do not have the capacity to consider consequences and we need to actively provide them with that information.

Yet, saying that certain content “just isn’t appropriate for children” isn’t actually a complete explanation and may just create more curiosity. This is important because, for the most part, children need to take responsibility for their own online behaviour. It is unrealistic to monitor them constantly, so they need to understand why they are at risk on the internet and, critically, why their own e-safety matters.

Ultimately, when it comes to e-safety, knowledge is power. Knowing, for instance, that accidentally referring to their home address on social media could result in a predator knowing where they live will be much more effective than simply telling them not to disclose personal information online.


How to safeguard student information

  1. Manage your data carefully

This includes minimising the amount of data you have on each pupil. Why? Because with less data there’s less risk of loss or theft. However, you also need to carefully manage the data you do need to have. This involves carefully monitoring who has access to what, so that full data privileges are only given to those staff members who absolutely need to have them.

  1. Delete old student records

This one’s simple – holding onto data that relates to pupils you no longer have contact with is just providing more data that can potentially be stolen. Of course, the appropriate retention period depends on the type of data. But there are many types that can be deleted sooner rather than later – and this kind of digital housekeeping can be baked into any good e-safety policy in schools.

  1. Encrypt your data

Encrypting your data refers to scrambling your data into a secret code that can only be unlocked with a unique digital key. This makes it much harder for hackers to steal sensitive information. So, make sure you encrypt sensitive data, no matter how it’s being stored and shared. That way, only the people with the privileges to access it will be able to do so.

  1. Create a student privacy policy

The best way to ensure everyone is abiding by the same rules for student privacy is to create a set of rules and procedures that must be followed for the collection, storing, and sharing of data. Review this policy on a regular basis to ensure it is still accounting for all the different types of data that can be produced on various devices.


Integrating Online Safety into the Curriculum

RHSE (Relationship, Health, and Sex Education) can provide a fantastic opportunity to talk to pupils about e-safety. In fact, the curriculum for both primary and secondary school RSHE education includes age-appropriate references to topics such as healthy and respectful online relationships, how to behave respectfully online, online security, and what pupils should do when they have concerns.

However, it can be helpful to bring up online safety across various subjects, especially those that require pupils to use the internet to research for homework and assessments. It’s important to remember that young people are easily forgetful and what may feel repetitive for teachers could prove vital for reminding pupils to keep what they’ve learned about e-safety in mind as they browse the internet.

In fact, National Online Safety recommends creating a culture that incorporates the principles of e-safety across all elements of school life. You can read more about this here.


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