Three young children crowding round a laptop

The online world is both a very personal bubble and a completely open wasteland, where absolutely nothing is sacred. Controlling how somebody uses the internet is all but impossible in this day and age, but that means children are being exposed to content not suitable for their young minds.

This goes beyond the poster child of online safety for young people — explicit content — and extends to other areas, such as violence, disturbing current affairs and controversy.

All these types of content can have a damaging effect on a child’s psychology. So, what can be done? As teachers, you have a powerful ability to influence the fragile yet perceptive minds around you. Even beyond the classroom.

By taking a few simple steps, you can affect real change in how children and parents approach the online world.

Educate Your Pupils

There can be no greater method of online child protection than education. Knowledge is power and, in the hands of children, it can be the difference between distressing online experiences and the ability to safely use the world’s most powerful resource tool.

  • Have an Open and Honest Discussion

An open and honest discussion with children on what constitutes dangerous online behaviour and how they can avoid it is important. It is unlikely they will have been given this information before, but knowledge of what to look out for can be immensely beneficial. If a child doesn’t understand that what they are doing is harmful or inappropriate, how will they know to stop? It is also important to explain that it is okay to talk to teachers and parents if they have already come across inappropriate content, especially if it has affected them in a negative way.

  • Create Examples

Just saying “this is bad, don’t do it” isn’t enough. You need to express how protection from content will be beneficial. Use examples, such as fictional but realistic scenarios, that help children understand why it is beneficial for them to avoid mature content. A scenario to use might be a child finding violent content, leaving them with trauma that causes sleeping problems. Remember, your intention is not to scare children into avoiding content, but to present realistic scenarios displaying how it could genuinely affect them.

  • Invite Them to Learn in Their Own Time

There are numerous resources available that will help teach children how to use the web safely. These often include videos and visuals on sites like YouTube. Share them with your class and encourage them to take in the information during their own time. This not only invites more focus (as we all know, children aren’t always paying attention), but it also reinforces the messages used in class.

  • Share ‘Good’ Websites

You cannot keep children off the internet. The web is sewn into almost every aspect of our modern culture, from communication to entertainment. However, you can minimise the risk of children being exposed to inappropriate content by encouraging them to visit child-friendly sites.

Invite children to anonymously note down their favourite websites. You can then visit these sites, making sure they are safe to use, before sharing them with other students, potentially targeting their online focus on new websites and away from browsing and stumbling across harmful content.

Educate Their Parents

Despite the frequency about which this type of problem is reported in the media, some parents are still turning a blind eye to the problem.

Many don’t see it as a threat, while others are apprehensive about discussing the subject with their children or simply don’t have enough knowledge on the situation. Through educating parents, you can help further child protection online.

  • Face-to-Face Conversations

Nothing beats a face-to-face conversation, where both teacher and parents can ask questions about a child’s online safety. This is a great way for teachers to gauge how knowledgeable certain parents are on online safety and which children need more attention. It’s also a powerful method for parents to ask specific questions and get advice specific to their child.

Face-to-face conversations are also the perfect opportunity to lay out the risks of not taking steps to protect a child online. It may be useful to keep resources like articles and research to hand to illustrate the risks.

  • Leaflets and Informational Materials

While face-to-face conversations are important, information can quite easily be forgotten. Written advice is much easier to follow and can be referred back to at later dates. Collecting, or even creating leaflets, letters and other informational resources to help parents understand how children can stay safe online is an invaluable method of protection.

Information to include could be:

  1. How parents can talk to their internet service providers to block known channels of mature content
  2. How to use search engine filters to help reduce the chances of harmful content being displayed
  3. How they can continue to carry on the education process at home
  4. Reminders of the dangers that exist
  • Encourage Parents Not to Totally Cut Off Internet Access

Limitations inspire two things: challenge and resentment. If parents censor all but a handful of select sites, limit internet usage and monitor every movement their child takes, the child will find ways to rebel against this obstruction.

While many parents see absolute control of their child's internet access as the only way to keep them from viewing harmful content, this simply isn’t the case. Plenty of methods exist to bypass such filters.

It is possible that restrictions will push children to use other, perhaps more unsafe options, like the computers of friends or schoolmates, to access content they wouldn’t normally look for, but now want to find after it’s been kept so far out of reach. It can also leave the child believing they are not trusted, or that they have done something wrong, when that simply isn’t the case.

Encourage parents not to overly control what they have access to, but to continue to enforce the education process. Allow children to make their own, safe decisions. Basic filtering — such as setting them up on search engines that display child-friendly content— and blocking known harmful websites is fine, but don’t go overboard.