The days of handing kids a device and telling them to “be safe” are long gone. Online safety has evolved, even in the last year, and, as educators, you must adjust your guidelines, advice, and protection to accommodate even your school’s youngest digital citizens.
You may think students are protected while they are at school—but that’s not necessarily true. You may also think that what they do at home on their own time doesn’t impact their lives at school—also quite untrue.
Instead, take a preventive, protective, and educational approach to creating digital citizens who can face challenges known and unknown in online platforms, now and as they grow up. Here’s what you need to know about online safety and how to increase security in your school and community.
Online Predators Are Very Real
It may seem like a hyperbole—some creepy middle-aged person, chatting with teenagers from some dingy basement. While the details vary, online predators are very real, with the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) having identified at least 500,000 known predators operating online at any given time.
The ICAC reviews suspicious images regularly. What are these predators after?
- 60% want explicit content;
- 32% are trying to have sex;
- 8% seek explicit conversations; and
- 2% have financial motivations.
By educating students about the predators out there, you can help them spot suspicious behavior.
Kids Are Constantly Online
The internet is growing deeper and wider by the minute. The number of apps available to children must worry about as educators is astronomical—there are over 2.5 million apps in the Apple app store, and 95% of teens either own or have access to a smartphone.
Monitoring all this is impossible for adults, as half of the surveyed teens say they are “almost constantly online.”
Teens Report That They Share Their Passwords
If you, as an adult, are always meticulous about choosing passwords carefully and making sure they are stored in a safe location, it will surprise you that students don’t treat their passwords with such care.
Almost half of the students report sharing their passwords with others, proving they’re less concerned about their internet security and have unreasonably high trust in their peer relationships.
Reexamine what you tell students about preserving their internet privacy, and what happens when they don’t. Be explicit about the consequences of password sharing, possibly with specific scenarios of what can happen otherwise.
Photo Sharing Is Terrifyingly Common Among Students
Parents (adults) may think the idea of sharing nude pictures is a rarity; they would be shocked by the statistics.
- One in five girls aged 13–17 has already shared nude photos of herself, as well as one in 10 boys. This contributes to the 77% increase of self-generated content by children.
- One in three students has also viewed a nonconsensually shared nude photo.
- One in five students thinks that it’s okay to share photos if they aren’t saving them on their phones.
Demonstrating the large gap in our education system toward educating students about ethical and legal consequences.
We’ve created this issue by focusing so much on the “posting is permanent”, with little regard to the consequences of simply sharing something. Do your students know that possessing and sending these images are felonious activities? Probably not.
Internet Safety Concerns Are Worse Since the Pandemic
Yet another casualty of the pandemic is any sense of safety online, with an increase in the last year in offenders soliciting sexually explicit materials. In particular, predators target geo-tagging, open Wi-Fi networks, those with public profiles, and other vulnerabilities such as emotional posts.
Do your students know what it could mean to showcase their emotional situations online? Be specific about how showing certain vulnerabilities could increase the likelihood of a predator targeting them. Students must make informed decisions about what to share.
We Know the Red Flags … Let’s Teach Them
Predators ask specific questions that can alert adults and students to their bad intentions. Can your students spot these red flags?
- Asking kids to keep a secret.
- Hinting at or asking about sexually related topics.
- A gut instinct of pressure or manipulation.
- Kids feeling untrue to themselves or their values for any reason when communicating with that person.
- The predator tells the child to “keep the secret” and not share the communication with adults.
- The predator is asking the child to meet them somewhere.
Sextortion Can Be a Life-Changing Emergency for Kids
Defined as a crime, sextortion includes nonphysical forms of coercion to extort sexual favors from the victim, and it's on the rise—impacting students the most. Half of all sextortion victims are minors.
What’s more alarming is 45% of the threats were carried out—even though the predator got what they wanted. For example, a criminal threatened to send out compromising images (like a nude photo) unless the student performed a sexual favor. Unfortunately, much of the time the photo is shared anyway—even if the minor complies with the request.
These are life-changing mental and physical health emergencies for students, yet only 16% reported them to the police and only one in three victims ever told anyone.
Cyberbullying Is on the Rise
We’ve long heard about cyberbullying prevention, but few teachers, School Heads, and parents feel they have the power to stop it. It happens in a variety of forms, including:
- ghosting—ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication—someone, and influencing others to stop communicating with them as well;
- liking and forwarding harmful photos and messages; and
- doctoring photos and videos.
While some educators think this bullying only takes place outside of school hours, these and similar activities are impacting students throughout the day—they may see a message before walking into a major assessment, for example. This type of bullying typically thrives on unwanted aggressive behavior, an imbalance of power, and an ongoing campaign against the victim.
- 30% of students have admitted to bullying someone else.
- Age 12 is the worst age for bullying.
- 37% of students aged 12-17 report being cyberbullied.
Instead of standing by and observing, adults and children should forward these messages to the School Heads or counselors—encourage them to do so.
Tune in to ask questions related to this Source article or other topics you've encountered lately.
The Rise of Gaming as an Additional Unsafe Space
While the benefits of gaming range from hand-eye coordination to camaraderie, it’s also undeniable that gaming worlds have created unsafe spaces for kids, including the increasingly popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (think Fortnite). This artificial world is a place where people can meet virtually, build alternate characters and universes, and interact with each other in groups or privately.
It’s also ripe with foul language, extreme violence, sexualized characters, adult content ads, and cyberbullying.
Work to protect your students by prohibiting the use of headphones at school, eliminating gaming during work time, and educating students about self-protection. Encourage students to make sure their avatars aren’t their actual pictures and observe what personal info they post.
Changing the Language Around Internet Safety Education
Open dialogue between you and your students helps you understand why they choose to engage in risky behavior online. The words you choose both before and after a mistake like this matter. Instead of asking “Why did you do that?” in an accusatory way, ask “What were you hoping to achieve, and how else could you get to that goal?”
Talk about why people would send explicit photos, how they might resurface later in life at pivotal moments, and how they can negatively affect a person’s life. Finally, provide actual options and ways out of dangerous situations online—blocking users, telling trusted adults, ignoring, reporting users to the platform, and knowing when they are witnessing a crime. Through these preventive, not reactive education steps, you can help protect your students and their futures.
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