Social media: Helping students steer clear of online threats

Dr. Julie M. Wood and Nicole Ponsford

Nicole Ponsford and Julie M Wood are the authors of TechnoTeaching: Taking Practice to the Next Level in a Digital World (2014, Harvard Education Press).

Nicole is the digital leader of @WomenEd, leader of @WomenEd_Tech and founder of @gendercharter. Previously, she was an award-winning AST in Media and New Technologies. Nicole is passionate about gender equality being the ‘new normal’.

Julie’s roles include: International digital literacy consultant. Advisor for US Department of Education. Senior Advisor at EtonKids’ Parents Academy, Beijing. Presenter / panelist. Literacy and technology advocate. Researcher. Children’s book author.

Follow @NicolePonsford

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Website: Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Smart phones. Web browsers. Social media. Instagram. Keeping children safe has become increasingly difficult in today’s hyper-wired world. While each of these digital tools has earned its place in society, each one poses a particular challenge for young people, especially teens and tweens who spend more time online than their younger peers.

Do we wish we could turn back the clock and make digital media go away? Most of us can only last a few hours without taking at least a furtive glance at our cell phones. Teachers, too, are hooked on media. They’re also keen on providing students with the kinds of eye-opening, immersive experiences that would be difficult, or even impossible to achieve without the help of creativity tools, apps, videoconferencing, and visits to museums and other cultural landmarks the world over. Try replicating that level of engagement with simple writing and drawing tools, or a dusty set of encyclopedias. Today’s students expect, and deserve, much more!

Young people are not only engaging with media during school hours. When they’re not in the classroom, they are typically socialising online. In fact, chatting via social media has all but taken the place of play dates, let alone running around outdoors without supervision, as many "Chatting via social media has all but taken the place of play dates."of us did in a pre-digital era.

Today’s children, tweens, and teens live in more constrained times. Rather than meeting each other at the mall or pizza parlour, they rely on social media as their primary means of connecting with their peers, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Also consider a recent study by the Irish Times, ‘Net Children Go Mobile’, which showed that of the 500 students surveyed (ages 9-to-16), ninety percent of the 15-through 16-year-olds have created a profile on a social networking site. This includes students who admit they not equipped with the online safety skills they need (and including many under-age children who snuck in under the wire).

More time online. More opportunities. Regrettably, more threats to children’s wellbeing.

Consider that nearly two-thirds of the children who participated in a BBC Learning poll (involving 2,000 11- to16-year-olds) admitted to engaging in “taking risks online.” Nearly three-quarters (72%) of the 14-to-16-year olds in the study said they had either witnessed or been the victim of cyberbullying. Researchers posit that the online environment makes it easier for potential bullies to make a nasty remark than it would be in person. To make matters worse, such insults can spread throughout a community before you can say, “Whoops, I didn’t really mean it.”

What can teachers do to ensure students’ online safety? We can begin by having a candid conversation with them on how to avoid scary situations in the first place. We can help students deal with peer pressure, supervise them when they are surfing and posting photos in private spaces (eg library nooks or bedrooms). We can point out that many predators post messages under the alias of a cuddly screen name (or anonymously) and are to be avoided. People are not necessarily who they say they are, after all. We need to let them know that under no circumstances is it okay for students to agree to meet a stranger in person.

We can also show students how to use privacy controls for photo sites and blogs, and insist that they run their messages by an adult before posting.

Teachers also need to provide guidance to parents by showing them how to establish “codes of practice” for Internet use at home. You might host a parent coffee or Tech Night event, for example, and introduce them to Common Sense Media, if they haven’t already discovered it. See in particular a video entitled ‘A Common Sense Approach to Internet Safety’. I"Have candid conversations with students on how to avoid scary situations online."t provides clear information on topics such as: how to create rules about the amount of time children are allowed to spend online, the importance of having an adult present when using social media, and how to judge the appropriateness of websites. The video also shows parents how to check the browser history on whatever computer their child has been using as a way of monitoring their activity, along with a how-to on setting up a filter or blocking software.

We are all in this together. Let’s pool our smarts to leverage the potential of digital media for learning, while remaining vigilant about our students’ safety and wellbeing both on and offline.

For more suggestions for keeping children safe in cyberspace, be sure to see the American Academy of Pediatrics website, Safety Net. Also, is a website where children can learn about cyber safety through games and activities.

How do you help students to stay safe online? Share your tips below.

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