Online and at risk: why cyber safeguarding needs to step up

By Matt Walker

Friday 24 January 2014

The internet can bring many benefits to children and young people, but the now almost daily stories in the media remind us that children also face risks and dangers online – from cyberbullying and sexting, to illegal file-sharing and incautious use of personal information.

Teachers and parents/carers have an important role to play in introducing children and young people to the internet, and teaching them to navigate it and to capitalise on the opportunities it offers in a safe way. But the ever-evolving nature of the Digital darkside presents real, and continuing challenges. So what do we know about children’s online experiences and the effectiveness of schools’ and parents’/carers’ actions to safeguard them?

NFER research has contributed to the fast-growing evidence base concerning the risks that children can encounter online, but it also serves to highlight some pressing gaps in our knowledge,:.

  • While children are generally aware of how they should behave to stay safe online, they often do not use these strategies

A mapping study carried out by NFER into children’s online risks and safety found that most young people are at least aware of the need to safeguard their online behaviour. For example, in one study eight out of 10 children aged 12-17 reported that they had been taught about staying safe online. Yet several studies document the fact that notable minorities of young people do not use safeguarding options to protect themselves, including the use of privacy settings on social networking sites. For example, a study by Ofcom (2011) found that almost one in 10 young people aged 8-11 with a social networking site profile did not limit access to those profiles to just their friends – meaning anyone could read their posts. However, this is an improvement on the findings from 2009,..

  • Some schools do not appear to have sufficiently comprehensive e-safety policies in place to ensure all children use the internet safely while at school

The same NFER mapping study found some evidence on schools’ e-safety policies, although more research is needed on a national basis to confirm these findings. In one survey, almost three quarters of schools were found to have online or ‘e-safety’ polices in place, but many were incomplete and did not address key issues. The main barriers to implementing such strategies differed between primary and secondary schools – in primary schools, the main barrier was reported to be teachers’ lack of confidence in installing and maintaining controls, while in secondary schools, these related mainly to schools’ concerns that pupils could bypass any protection mechanisms used.

  • Teachers feel confident providing general guidance to pupils on using the internet safely, but less so for specific  aspects of e-safety, including cyberbullying and the safe use of social networking sites

recent survey of over 1300 teachers by NFER found that while most reported feeling confident in providing pupils with general guidance on using the internet, a smaller proportion reported feeling confident advising pupils on specificaspects of e-safety, including cyberbullying and the safe use of social media. The findings suggest that some teachers would benefit from additional training on internet safety.

  • Parents/carers often apply rules to safeguard their children’s use of the internet, but many are not using internet controls or blocking software

There are several recent studies that highlight the fact that many parents do not use internet controls or blocking software to help safeguard their children’s online experiences. Estimates of usage vary, but collectively these studies suggest that perhaps as many as half, or more, of parents, do not currently use such controls.

We all have a responsibility to look after the welfare of our young people.  The Government’s recent work with industry and law enforcement to target online child abuse and the industry joint venture to lead an awareness campaign around child safety online is a good start, but more work is required to address the gaps in our understanding, including:

  • More research to explore what specific strategies work best in ensuring that young people use the internet safely- we need to know more about the effectiveness of different approaches to ensuring young people use the internet safely
  • More and better training is required for teachers on e-safety – – particularly for the teachers of secondary-aged school children, where the dangers that exist online and instances of cyberbullying appear to be more acute.

Matt Walker will be presenting at the Westminster Education eForum on ‘Childhood and the internet: safety, education and regulation’, on Wednesday, 29 January