Teaching kids to stay safe online
4 MIN READ
‘The hairs stood up on the back of my neck,’ says Paula Connellan, one of our team of Digital Arrows who run Stay Safe Online sessions for primary and secondary schoolchildren across the country.
‘I was in a tiny primary school in the country. I had just started talking to one of the kids about downloading apps and suddenly they were all telling me about this particular gaming app where you manage a farm. Four of them told me that they had been approached by people they did not know within the app who had sent messages directly to them.’
The app encourages contact between players who can invite other players to be ‘neighbours’ in the game even if they are not Facebook friends with them.
Helping the parents as well as children
Paula spoke to the teacher after the session and the teacher agreed that a note needed to go home to the parents. The school then organised an information evening with the parents to make them aware of the issues and to let them know what they could do to help their children.
‘We go in there to talk to 3rd class and 4th class,’ says Paula, talking about the Stay Safe Online sessions. ‘These are eight, nine, ten-year-old kids who’ve never been on Facebook or other social media channels but they do know how to download apps and they know gaming.’
And, even if the vast majority of friend or follower requests made to schoolchildren turn out to be completely innocent, a small percentage are not and children may become stressed if they do not know how to deal with them.
How ‘Stay Safe Online’ came about
Stay Safe Online began two years ago in response to requests from local Bank of Ireland branches in touch with primary and secondary schools in their communities. Prior to their work with schools, the Digital Arrows team had been delivering ‘Tea and Teach’ sessions to elderly people in communities around the country since 2016. Now, Paula says, the requests come directly from schools who have heard of the sessions from other teachers. Often the requests are for repeat visits.
‘We might be invited in to a secondary school to talk to the 1st years. After that we might be invited back to talk to the 2nd years, 3rd years and Transition Years and back in to talk to the Leaving Cert years.’
16,000 children and parents attended the sessions last year
In 2017, over 16,000 children and their parents attended an event run by the Digital Arrows. There are currently six Digital Arrows running free Stay Safe Online at schools across the country. All of them have run at least ‘one or two’ evening sessions for parents and teachers in response to a serious issue that emerged during a Stay Safe Online session for schoolchildren.
Parents are looking for help
‘A lot of the time,’ says Paula, ‘parents want to be better informed and to protect their children but they just don’t know where to go to get the information they need in plain English.’ New apps, online games and platforms are being launched all the time. Many are great fun to use and provide hours of innocent fun.
But many adults may not know how a particular app or social media platform works. And children may be reluctant to raise genuine concerns for fear of being banned from playing a favourite app or banished from a platform that ‘everyone else is allowed to use’.
For the Stay Safe Online sessions, the Arrows use publicly available material sourced from the Department of Justice and Equality’s informative Office for Internet Safety website.
‘God, I just didn’t know this.’
The response from teachers has been positive. ‘The main feedback I hear,’ says Paula, is, ‘God, I just didn’t know this.’ Like parents, teachers might be on some social media channels but not ones currently popular with kids and they may never have used gaming apps or played online games.
What language do they use to speak to children? ‘They don’t know how to approach it and it may be just one of twenty or thirty other topics they have to touch upon.’
‘The information just flows’
‘If we just engage in any kind of conversation about it, the information just flows from the kids at primary schools,’ says Paula. The Digital Arrows say they often learn as much about what is happening right now in digital media from the children as they teach them about staying safe.
‘We are really just raising awareness and getting young people to think about what they share online and who they accept as followers or friends.’
3 common issues across all platforms
No two schools sessions go the same way as the Digital Arrows respond to the issues the schoolchildren bring up. ‘One session might end up focussed on SnapChat, another might be all about Instagram and another might concentrate on Facebook.’ But there are 3 common issues running across all digital platforms.
- Children being contacted by someone they do not know
- Being asked to accept them as a friend or follower
- Not knowing whether they are who they say they are.
Approaches from strangers don’t just happen on social media and apps but also on online gaming platforms like Playstation Live and Xbox live where players can message each other.
‘Let your kids know you won’t be angry at them if someone approaches them’
Fran Boyce, who manages the Digital Arrows, says the most important thing is to open the lines of communication with children. ‘Let them know you’re interested. Encourage them to show you what they are doing and teach you about the site or game they are on.’
‘Remember to let them know you won’t be angry at them if someone approaches them online,’ she says. ‘Tell them that if they are ever in doubt about accepting requests or chatting to strangers they should ask your advice first.’
Under pressure to appear popular
Rachel Foster, another Digital Arrow, tells me that there is a lot of social pressure on children to increase their number of followers. ‘I ask the children how many followers they have,’ she says. ‘Some children claim they have over 1,000 followers on some social platforms.
But, when I ask them if they know who their followers are, it’s obvious that they hardly know them at all and that they often accept followers simply in order to appear more popular.’
Children are often under pressure to appear popular, of course, but, when they are online, it is much harder to ensure that they do not befriend the wrong people.
What can I tell my children to help them to stay safe online?
Fran Boyce’s top 3 things for parents to teach their children:
- Don’t be afraid to ask someone how they know you if they send you a friend request or ask to follow you
- Never share any personal information about your family, school, or friends. Never send photos to anyone you have never met in real life
- If anyone makes you feel uncomfortable online, log off and speak to a teacher, parent, sibling or friend.
Fran also recommends that any parent or teacher with concerns and looking advice should visit sites like the ones recommended by the Office for Internet Safety here.
Request a Stay Safe Online event
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like your school or organisation to host a Stay Safe Online event. In the meantime, you can find out more about internet safety here and from the Department of Justice and Equality’s website here.