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02 February 2024

Safer Internet Day - Teaching online safety is an integral part of education

How do we keep children safe from harm in digital spaces?

How can we teach them to be aware of online risks – so that they can enjoy digital opportunities safely?

Learning how to navigate the online world safely needs to be an integral part of the classroom says cybersecurity and education expert Wendy Goucher.

Online safety awareness can be an embedded in education from an early age says Wendy, author of the Nettie in Cyberland picture book series.

Our online worlds have become increasingly complex, but teaching children how to conduct their life online in a safe way doesn’t have to be so, said Wendy. She told us more about the best approach for schools and teachers to online safety.

How should teachers approach online safety in 2024?

“I'm always very conscious of is not saying ‘Here's another thing to do’ or ‘you're not doing this properly. The key is about building on what you're already doing. Instead of giving teachers something new, let's expand the boundary of what they're already doing. For instance, if you’re already teaching about being respectful to each other in the classroom, teachers can also ask ‘let's see how that also applies online. Be respectful on the Internet, because that's also part of your world and is just as valid. “The Internet is part of their world – it’s not an ‘add-on’.

Embed online safety across teaching.

“Online safety needs to be developed as part of the normal life skills that we teach, such as self-respect and respect for others. Don’t put it into a silo as a special lesson. “Think about the online aspects of PSHE topics as you explore them.

“We want cyber to be included smoothly and gently as part of life and as part of learning to be grown up and learning to keep ourselves safe.

“There are things they can do within the normal conversations especially as so much work is being done to develop social skills in children who missed out on that socialisation phase, because of Covid lockdowns. I think a powerful way to address these issues is to show that online safety shouldn't be a separate thing, certainly at primary schools
The online world isn't a separate thing to young people anymore.
 It's just another dimension to their world.”

Starting young is key to teaching online safety

“We’ve changed the way that we teach about sex and relationships and now children receive age-appropriate sex and relationship education at an appropriate level from a very young age, learning about respect and autonomy over their own privacy and body. “Just like sex and relationship education, teaching online safety has to be part of the normal experience and it has to be part of the way we do things. And many of the messages and themes about privacy and respect are similar, and can help prevent online harmful behaviour. We can teach children ‘this is your body, respect it. You wouldn't take your clothes off and sit in your window looking out onto the street because somebody asked you to. It's exactly the same online. “The key issues relate to bullying, sex and relationships, keeping their own personal data safe and financial security. It’s about learning to respect what is personal because the line is actually quite narrow.”

Support for parents – and teachers

“Many parents lack confidence. But many of these risks and crimes are age-old ‘scams’ or hazards which have moved online.

I tell parents, “Remember pyramid selling? Well, this is what it's like now.”
There’s nothing new under the sun and a lot of the awful things we see online are fundamentally the same as challenges, risks and crimes that have always existed.

Thinking like this can give parents and teachers the confidence to respond to an issue such as online bullying more effectively. We might talk about online bullying, but the problem is bullying,  that happens to be online.

Parents often feel guilty about not understanding technology, and they come and they say I don't know what to do about this. But many parents do understand much more than they think.”

What are the new developments emerging in 2024?

“There are lots of reasons to be optimistic. There’s been a steady growth in groups of experts who are working to enable parents, and teachers to access the information they need. There’s also been a growth in useful tools like being able to lock down your child’s account. “That's becoming easier and part of that is due to government pressure on social media companies and search engines. “No tool is 100% effective, but certainly there are more tools, resources and groups than there used to be. “ “We're at the crocus stage of spring when it comes to online safety – but things are moving in the right direction I'm optimistic that this is going to pick up speed

Parents and grandparents need to lead by example – and can learn from their children

I know lots of parents, and grandparents, love sharing images of their children. But now we’re seeing young people coming home from school and telling off their grandmother for over-sharing, or not having a strong password.

“The message is getting through to young people – increasingly they are choosing not to share images. They’ll also now educating their parents and grandparents .

Cyber security doesn’t need to be about stopping people's fun or enjoyment of their online life. We want to be saying ‘Let's have fun – safely. So, you can post your holiday photos – but wait till you get home so you are not telling the world your house is empty. And yes, you can go and tell your parents that they're doing something risky online!”

About Wendy Goucher

Wendy is a Cyber Consultant and Storyteller. Her Nettie in Cyberland picture book series introduces key concepts about online safety to 4–7-year-olds in an accessible way through storytelling. Having spent time in schools with the Nettie books, teachers explained the need for similar books for older children.

Wendy’s latest series, starting with Eesha and the Mud Monster, are longer stories aimed at older primary school children (key stage 2). As well as being a good story, the books are also a platform that parents and teachers can use to discuss the topic of online safety.