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The role of schools in keeping children safe online

A female teacher smiles and helps a group of students working at their table.

Our new data briefing looks at the relationship between schools and home in protecting children online.

Internet Matters are submitting these insights to the Government review of Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE).

Our mission at Internet Matters is to promote safe, fun and fulfilling digital childhoods. We do this by empowering adults with the skills and knowledge they need to support children in their online lives.

Since our foundation in 2014, we have supported countless parents, carers and professionals to navigate the ever-changing digital landscape. In recent years, our focus has increasingly turned toward the role of schools in this effort.

Online safety: the bridge between school and home

Teachers play a critical role in protecting children online for a number of reasons:

  • Not all children have a parent or carer with the time or ability to support their safety online. With building and competing pressures on family life, it is vital that schools provide a safety net for the children who lack support at home.
  • Given how online issues permeate the boundary between school and home, it is critical that schools and parents combine in a united front against online risks. This can be achieved through effective communication with parents on topics such as use of parental filtering and monitoring tools, and how to spot and respond to harmful behaviour on online platforms.
  • And, finally, schools are the key conduit through which we can reach parents with tools, tips and resources. Schools have already collaborated with parents in other areas of child development such as healthy eating and literacy. We see online safety as no different.

However, our new data briefing, published today, shows that schools approach online safety in diverse ways.

Data briefing document

The cover of Internet Matters' data briefing for online safety in schools. Text reads 'June 2023 / Internet Matters data briefing: / Online safety in schools.'

Our recent research into the issue of online safety in schools is outlined in our data briefing.

SEE FULL BRIEFING

Our new data briefing: online safety in schools

There are some positive stories. We were glad to find that teachers and school leaders recognise the fundamental importance of online safety, and understand their role in protecting children in digital spaces. We find that schools take a multitude of approaches to teach children about online safety, including through timetabled lessons, form time and via ad-hoc sessions such as assemblies and themed days.

Schools cover a good variety of topics relating to online safety, including cyberbullying, nude-sharing, mental wellbeing, data security, screen time and harmful content. We also find that the majority of parents feel that they have a good knowledge of the school’s approach to online safety, and most rated the school’s approach as fairly good or very good. Encouragingly, three quarters (75%) of parents had experienced one form of outreach from their child’s school.

However, we also uncovered some less positive insights. We reveal that competing pressures and priorities faced by schools mean that online safety does not always receive sufficient focus, despite school leaders recognising its importance and the value of their role.

In response to our survey, teachers told us that the greatest barriers to effective online safety teaching are keeping pace with technology, understanding the platforms students use, and lacking time and appropriate training to feel confident in delivering online safety teaching. And, despite the central role of parents in protecting their child online (81% of children aged 9-16 would approach their parent for advice on online safety, compared to 70% who would approach a teacher), we find that the quality of outreach between schools and parents sometimes lacking.

Parents predominantly receive outreach from their schools through information on protecting their child online (38%) and information on how the school intends to approach online safety teaching (31%). A further 28% of parents had read the online safety policy on the school’s website. It is concerning that none of the top delivery routes invite discussion and interaction between the school and parent. Just 15% of parents had attended an event about online safety organised by the school, despite this being identified by parents as the most effective form of outreach.

For our part, we are responding to the need to bridge the gap between school and home with new initiatives like Digital Matters, a free platform for teaching about online safety in schools.

The Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) review

At a most fundamental level, schools have a statutory safeguarding duty to protect children in their online lives and interactions, as much as offline. Above this, schools also have a duty to teach children about staying safe online through the RSHE and Computing curriculums.

The Government is currently carrying out a review of the RSHE statutory guidance which covers various strands relating to digital safety, including mental wellbeing, safe and respectful digital relationships, and exposure to harmful content and behaviour online. Internet Matters has welcomed the opportunity to contribute our rich insights from children, parents and schools (including the findings set out above) to ensure that the review is fully informed by their experiences, hopes and concerns.

Specifically, we are recommending that:

  • The guidance should be stronger in its expectations around how schools should engage parents on key topics in RSHE, including online safety.
  • The RSHE curriculum should cover teaching about misogyny, including misogynistic influencers and communities online.
  • The curriculum guidance should include a consolidated section on intimate image-sharing, including image-based harassment and abuse.
  • The ‘Health’ component of the curriculum should cover self-harm and suicide prevention, including teaching about the impacts of viewing online content which promotes these behaviours.
  • The ‘Health’ component should also be broadened out so that children are taught about online scams, not just online gambling and the accumulation of debt online.

We look forward to working closely with the Department for Education as they take a close look at the RSHE guidance and re-shape key areas in response to the views of children and parents. We will be sharing a summary of our full input to the consultation in coming weeks.

More to explore

See related advice and practical tips to support children online.

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