Last reviewed 9 April 2019

Former Head, Michael Evans, looks at the issues surrounding e-safety and what schools can do to help pupils stay safe and make positive contributions online.

The world has changed

It is getting on for 30 years since the first BBC computers were introduced into schools and within a short time there were 1.5 million in UK classrooms. Since then, developments have taken place that would have been beyond the wildest imaginings of the most forward-looking teacher at the time.

We now live in a “connected world” where children and young people need to develop their digital knowledge and the skills that are appropriate for the different ages and stages of their lives. In this burgeoning area, not only do they need to be aware of current online technology with its influence on behaviour and development, but they need to master the skills they will need in order to navigate it.

New strategies needed

Schools need to develop strategies to support pupils so that they can stay safe and make positive contributions online. According to Ofsted, staff training can be one of the weakest links, so strong efforts must be made to ensure that teachers understand ways that they can develop effective strategies for understanding and handling online risks.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying uses commonly available technology to deliberately upset, threaten, harass or abuse others. For a would-be bully the new technology is simplicity itself and bullying can take a number of forms. Easy targets are race and faith, but children with SEND are also common victims. Targeted children can find that hurtful and often vicious personal comments have been posted about them on social media. These might relate to personal appearance or they can be of a sexual nature.

Common examples in schools include:

  • flaming — online fights using texts and email with angry and vulgar language

  • dissing — posting gossip or rumours about a person to damage their reputation or friendships

  • impersonation — pretending to be someone else in order to get a person into trouble

  • outing — sharing someone’s secrets, embarrassing information, or images online

  • trickery — persuading someone to reveal secrets or embarrassing information or images online.

Cyberbullying may be confined to just a small group of individuals or can involve a wide group. The use of smartphones and social media enables rumours and threats to spread rapidly. Those who refuse to take part are often “punished” for their refusal by being excluded from an online group.

What is sexting?

69% of 12- to 15-year-olds own a smartphone and for the 16- to 24-year-olds this figure rises to 90%. The ability for children to easily share photos and videos online, particularly through their smartphones, has given rise to youth produced sexual imagery, otherwise known as sexting. This is the exchange of sexually suggestive images of themselves or others.

Images may be nude or semi-nude and be of themselves or others. In many cases, such sharing is voluntary, but it can be under duress. Often images are accompanied by sexually explicit messages.

There are many reasons why young people get involved in such behaviour. For some it is about testing their sexual identity, while others simply crave attention or acceptance. Others are victims of sexual harassment or are being “groomed”. The pressure to participate can be strong, particularly for girls, and can often be regarded as peer-to-peer bullying or abuse.

Many children do not realise that once the pictures have been posted, they are very difficult to remove, particularly if the imagery is shared further. It is important for children and young people who participate to realise that they are laying themselves open to a whole raft of risks and potential dangers. These can give rise to embarrassment, bullying and increased vulnerability to sexual exploitation. In addition, if they feature pictures of young people who are under the age of 18, they are illegal.

While this is a significant problem, the truth is that nearly 90% of young people do not involve themselves in sexting. A 2016 NSPCC/Office of the Children’s Commissioner England study found that just over one in 10 boys and girls had taken topless pictures of themselves and only 3% had taken fully naked pictures. However, of those who had taken sexual images of themselves, 55% had shared them with others and 31% of this group had also shared the image with someone that they did not know.

Although the production of such imagery is most likely to have taken place off-site, it is in schools, colleges and other organisations working with children and young people where these issues often manifest themselves. There is a consequent need to be able to respond swiftly and confidently to ensure that children are safeguarded, supported and educated.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council has made it clear that incidents involving youth produced sexual imagery should primarily be treated as a safeguarding issue. Although the practice is likely to be illegal, the exchange of sexual images between children is unlikely to lead to prosecution. On the other hand, if an adult is involved in receiving and sharing such explicit images, prosecution is almost inevitable.

It is everyone’s responsibility

Schools must be clear that keeping children safe in education is everyone’s responsibility. The latest government guidance stresses that everyone who comes into contact with children and their families and carers has a role to play in safeguarding children.

Online safety is recognised as being part of a school’s responsibility. Policies should include safe and appropriate use of personal devices, such as wearable technology, mobile phones and cameras.

In view of its secretive nature, with its use of personal phones or computers, cyberbullying and sexting can be very difficult to detect and eliminate, but every effort should be made by school leaders to take positive action to identify culprits and support victims.

Controversy rages as to whether schools should ban mobile phones on-site. Whether or not a ban is in place, some form of control is definitely necessary, but this will not in itself prevent cyberbullying.

Defining a strategy

Schools should have clear policies that enable pupils to be educated about acceptable online behaviour that will include a raising of awareness of cyberbullying and the issues, risks and potential consequences associated with sexting.

A suitable strategy might include:

  • incorporating appropriate online behaviour in computer teaching programmes

  • raising awareness of the dangers of illegal behaviour and its potential consequences

  • ensuring that cyberbullying, sexting and peer-on-peer pressure are included in Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) programmes

  • using themed assemblies and related activities to stress the message

  • hosting parent information sessions about social media platforms and apps, such as Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Supporting and safeguarding victims is vital. All staff should be clear as to the school’s policies and procedures with regard to peer-on-peer abuse and abuse associated with cyberbullying and sexting.

Schools will devise their own policies, but as part of the support process, procedures could include the following.

  • Logging of all incidents.

  • Making victims aware of the need to preserve evidence if possible; including printing a record of abuse, such as phone messages, screenshots of instant messages and communication threads, etc.

  • Ensuring that the school’s pastoral care network supports victims, both during and after incidents.

  • Considering the use of sanctions, depending on the type and impact of the bullying, taking account of whether it was unintentional or in retaliation.

  • Making efforts to help bullies recognise the consequence of their actions and to provide support in order that they might change their attitude and behaviour.

This is a difficult area, but it is one that schools must address. There are commercial systems on the market that can help, but the most important factor is for school staff to maintain continual vigilance.