[Category: After Class]
Working together to tackle cyber safety challenges
by Nic Ford
The internet combined with mobile technology has undoubtedly changed peoples’ habits and lifestyles for the better. Technology has reunited friends and family, improved communication and provided countless new opportunities for businesses and consumers. The internet has broken down barriers, enabling the free flow of information and ideas around the world.
As a result, children are accessing the internet at increasingly younger ages with very young children predominantly using the internet for games and watching online videos. A recent OFCOM report 1 shows that children aged 5- 15 are spending on average 15 hours a week online, and 3-4 year olds spending an average of 8 hours and 18 minutes a week online. Younger children (11 and under) are predominantly watching YouTube and playing online games (74%) whereas older students tend to spend more time on social media and a LSE study even showed that 33% use the internet to help them complete homework.
For the majority of children online, the internet has opened up new, safe forms of entertainment and communication, but for a small minority it has exposed them to content that is upsetting and potentially damaging. It is worth stating here that only 11% of 9-10 year olds surveyed in the LSE report state that they have been upset by something online and whilst this grows to 23% for 15-16 year olds, the figures are a lot lower than many media organisations would suggest from their news reports.
So what are the cyber safety risks online?
What are the cyber safety challenges that we need to be concerned about, and how does it affect children in real life? The first issue I will discuss is the issue of ‘griefing’ and ‘trolling’ online.
Griefing is an area that affects many young people who play online video games. Griefing involves a gamer deliberately ruining game play for others, which can be upsetting and can lead to conflict in real life. Many schools in the UK for example have had to deal with fights and relationship breakdowns as a result of griefing in Clash of Clans or Call of Duty.
Trolling is a different internet phenomenon whereby a user will deliberately post abusive, inflammatory messages with the sole intention of upsetting people. In extreme cases trolls target users with death and rape threats alongside hateful messages about all aspects of their life which are obviously upsetting and for many younger it can be hard to deal with the barrage of abuse.
This kind of cyberbullying, whilst rare, can have a devastating effect on a child’s self-esteem and their overall mental health. Unlike bullying in the playground, there is no escape. Cyberbullies and trolls can access victims wherever they are, day and night. The relentless assault by messages, harmful images and treats have in extreme cases led to victims committing suicide. If you want to witness the effects of cyberbullying view the Amanda Todd video below; a Canadian teenager driven to suicide by a relentless campaign of cyber bullying. Sadly her story is not unique, and several teenage suicides have been attributed to cyber-bullying. Thankfully, the extreme cases are very rare and overall, the EU Kids Online report shows that only 12% of 11-16 year olds have experienced cyber bullying.
The most common cyber safety risk that children face online is accessing age-inappropriate material, with pornography and violent, gory content the content that upsets young people the most. An NSPCC report shows a 6% increase in young people needing counseling as a result of viewing inappropriate material and young people are at risk of desensitisation to violence, as well as developing unrealistic attitudes towards sex, consent and body image. In fact, 3 in 4 young women believe pornography has led to pressure on women to act in certain ways.
One of the most rapidly growing areas of concern online is user generated content, specifically ‘sexting’ where people send each other naked or other explicit pictures of themselves. Up to 40% of under 18s have admitted to sending images that might be classed as Sexts, and an astonishing 80% have seen an explicit image of someone that is known to them. Young people are often coerced into sending images by peer pressure, and the issue adversely affects girls as these images are quickly and widely shared online, which in turn can lead to cyberbullying.
The final cyber safety challenge is connected with grooming, by both pedophiles and extremist groups. Victims are often targeted through social media, but increasingly through chat functions in video games. People often pretend to be younger, gain the vicitms’ trust before asking them to meet in real life.
43% of 14-16 year olds have had contact with someone online they have never met, and 12% have then gone onto meet an online only friend in real life. One of the hidden dangers is peer grooming, as people often, wrongly assume that predatory behaviour and grooming is from old men.
How to combat them?
So, how do we work together to tackle cyber safety and protect young people from all these online dangers? The good news is that young people themselves are increasingly aware of risks and can plan, strategise and avoid many problematic online situations. To do so effectively though, they need support from their parents and increasingly their schools.
Parents should discuss these issues regularly with their children, being open and honest even if the topics can be a little embarrassing. Open communication has been consistently shown to be the most effective way of keeping children safe online, ensuring that young people and their parents know how to report issues online. Parents also have the option to install parental filters, or use applications such as OurPact to monitor, limit and control what their children are doing. Perhaps more importantly than blocking internet use, parents need to have clear guidelines around the use of mobile phones and other internet enabled devices such as consoles.
Tech addiction is a growing problem that interferes with sleep, studying and perhaps even limits real life friendships. Children should not have devices in their bedrooms, and clear, firm boundaries around their use can minimise many risks. My school supports the HMC campaign which can be seen in this video.
Schools and teachers also have a critical role to play. I speak to all the parents at my school every September to discuss one or more of the issues above. I also run social media and cyber safety sessions to parents so that they are aware of the changing websites and apps that their children may be on, and the risks associated thereof. For example, one of the trends in new social media start-ups that are popular with young people is anonymity. Yik Yak & amp; Say At.me both allow anonymous messages which can be easily used for cyber-bullying, and I ensure parents know what apps they should look for on phones and what conversations they should be having accordingly. As a school, we also run a variety of age appropriate sessions as part of our taught Pastoral Programme so that we educate boys about issues as varied as pornography, consent, grooming and sexting.
Whilst this all may make the internet seem a scary place, it is worth remembering that this is not the reality for the majority of young people. In fact, many of the risks described above are actually slowly declining as young people are increasingly aware of how to maintain cyber safety. This is a result of partnerships between children, their parents and the schools, and it is clear that we will only solve the problems if we continue to work together.
Deputy Head (Academic) Bolton School Boys’ Division