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How do we keep our children safe online?

The use of mobile technology amongst children is more widespread than ever before, and the events of last year have thrown into stark relief the importance of online access. But how do we keep young people safe online?

According to the BBC, a study by Ofcom conducted in 2019 showed that 50% of ten year olds owned a smartphone, whilst 83% of children aged 12 - 15 years old owned either a smartphone or a tablet. 

"The mobile phone is the device of choice for children," said Yih-Choung Teh, strategy and research group director at Ofcom. "I'm conscious that for these children who have never known a world without the internet, in many respects their online and offline worlds are indistinguishable."

Whilst this might be regarded as a positive step towards better access to online learning, and 45% of parents thought the benefits of children using the internet outweigh the risks, it also throws up its own issues, particularly in the area of internet safety. Not least the prevalence of inappropriate content and the ease with which younger children can come across it. Ofcom’s report indicated that around half of 12-15 year olds say they have seen hateful content online, and unsurprisingly, an increase in parents who are concerned about it

Ubiquitous online access is here to stay, but we need to find better ways of helping our children navigate it successfully. This presents us with the question:

Whose responsibility is it to teach these young, inquisitive minds to explore within safe boundaries, communicate well and leave a positive footprint in the virtual world?

Anyone in education will tell you that the best results come when teachers and parents work together. Never has that been more important than on the issue of children’s safety. The challenge for us as teachers is twofold; firstly, to move with the ever changing digital landscape and find safe resources and practises that will excite and engage the children. Secondly, to keep parents informed and involved so that they can continue the conversation at home (or even better, for teachers to build upon what parents have already put in place!).

It’s easy to think that online safely only becomes an issue in KS2 or Secondary School but the truth is 90% of primary age children go online and 72% of children aged 3-11 watch TV programmes on devices other than a TV. Thankfully, there’s a wealth of resources out there to support the teaching of online safety and to help teachers embed it into their everyday practice, even from Early Years.

A good starter for younger children is ‘Digiduck’s Big Decision’. It’s an entertaining tale designed to teach children about being a good online friend and is free to download to use in the classroom or to recommend to parents.

The and Childnet International websites provide a range of fantastic resources for teachers, parents and children to learn about staying safe online.

There are also some brilliant Horrible Histories clips which take a humorous route into different online safety issues such as privacy settings, safer downloading or being careful about what content you post online.

Finally, the BBC also has a wide range of videos and resources looking at aspects of internet safety, suitable for every age group.

So many of the difficulties our children face in staying safe are because the online world is just so vast. Within a few clicks it’s possible for them to go anywhere, share anything and meet anyone. But it’s also encouraging to know that there are really simple things that parents can do to make their child’s online experience safe. Mobile phone and broadband providers have excellent information for parents about setting up parental controls on devices, but perhaps one of the quickest wins to keeping children safe both in school and at home is setting your search engine to a child friendly search such as Kiddle or WackySafe so that children can learn the skills of going to exciting places online safely. Teaching children the importance of password controlled profiles and setting up user accounts for them that only allow access to approved apps, games and sites is another way to encourage independence within a safe environment.

Finally of course, nothing beats talking to the children themselves. This might feel like a bit of a minefield for many of us, but the NSPCC has helpful guidance on how to have these conversations with your children effectively.

With technology and the internet moving and changing so rapidly, managing children’s online safety can feel like trying to land a plane on an ever moving runway. However, when we look at the possibilities that our children have through such a wide range of experiences, including using different devices, games, apps and online research, it's clear that we need to keep finding those resources and practical ideas to make that learning environment the best that it can be for them. If we can get the parents actively involved in this, maybe this time we’ll land that plane!

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