How can e-safety be taught more imaginatively to engage but not startle children?
Teaching e-safety in primary schools is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand there is evidence that primary aged girls in particular and some boys, are becoming fearful of the Internet and on the other hand we know that just under two thirds of 10-11 year olds always follow the e-safety advice they have been taught. Many girls only do so because they are scared ‘something bad will happen to me’. The remainder follow the advice intermittently or never.
At a recent parents’ evening a mother passed me a note which read ‘My daughter is too scared to have a mobile phone.’ I decided to look again at the most recent responses of primary school girls to our annual Cybersurvey. There it was again, so many were saying how scared they were. Have they been frightened by scary stories about the dangers of the Internet? The boys on the other hand occasionally mentioned fear, but strongly emphasised problem solving skills and their wish for autonomy. Again and again they included the word’ myself’ in their answers. ‘I found out for myself’ or ‘I sort out problems myself’ or they said they followed the e-safety advice ‘because I want to play and watch things.’
Thinking about what we want for our young people and their online futures, I knew it was not obedience because of fear, or a lackadaisical approach to following e-safety advice displayed by those who said they ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’ follow the advice. By the age of 14 those who are not carefully following e-safety advice constitute almost three quarters of all students! Instead I wanted that burgeoning wish for autonomy and digital competence to be encouraged.
This has led to soul searching and workshops, surveys and discussions with teachers, students and parents. How can e-safety be taught more imaginatively to engage but not startle children and how can we get stickiness so that they do not drift away from adherence in the teen years when they need it most? We know that cyberbullying and high risk behaviours peak in the mid-teens.
Furthermore our survey data collected over seven years found that children and young people in vulnerable groups felt their e-safety education was not working for them. They were more likely to take multiple risks online, share explicit images (yes a few even at age 11) and to visit inappropriate sites and those encouraging self-harm, anorexia or gambling. Though small, this worrying group represent the children most in need of support.
The next step was to try to create activities that could be adaptable and used to engage children, excite them, and encourage their wish to take charge of their online lives. When they were asked for their ideas, a fascinating range of suggestions were offered. We could use fiction, drama, art, spot the difference games, debates, quizzes and digi-dilemmas to bring home the messages.
Clearly not all types of activity will suit every child, but getting our messages right and using a wide range of delivery styles we could have a better chance of success. Then there is the structure of the teaching. Going back to good teaching methods with regular re-caps and building step by step on what was learned before, breaking it down into chunks, giving practical demonstrations – all build up knowledge gradually in an age appropriate way. Don’t have a guest in for a day to give sessions on e-safety and then disappear. Think of it like maths! Don’t move on until they fully understand the first step.
One suggestion in my book is to colour code the messages so that any advice on ‘safe searching’ for example is always delivered in the same colour and wall displays or handouts reflect this. Any tools in your armoury for teaching should be harnessed to delivering e-safety. It could arguably be the most important skill the children will take forward into their future lives. Above all it needs to be a partnership with children and young people as we explore the internet and new devices, apps and software together. It cannot work if we simply hand down a set of rigid rules even though that is tempting because it appears to be easier.
If you would like to share your tips on engaging pupils on this difficult topic, please use the comments section below