Online peer abuse: are you educating children to keep safe online?

“I recently dealt with a case of a child who was of p6 [Scottish Year 5] age who sent an indecent image to another pupil who subsequently distributed this to the rest of the school. This was only discovered by myself when I overheard other pupils discussing this. We were faced with a difficult choice on how to deal with this issue and I had not been given any training on how to deal with this before.”

Online Peer on Peer Abuse: A national survey of Headteachers and Safeguarding Leads in England and Scotland Professor Andy Phippen Professor Emma Bond Katie Tyrrell (June 2018)

Most teaching staff tell me that the majority of their safeguarding concerns involve online peer abuse, and this has been the case for many years. Increasingly I have been asked by a variety of settings to speak specifically about online safety within my more generic safeguarding awareness sessions. I have also been asked to deliver parent briefing sessions on online safety, which I am also happy to do.

I believe that every member of the children’s workforce should have a statutory understanding of abuse that includes peer abuse, and an understanding of emotional abuse in particular that includes online abuse.

Peer abuse is any form of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse, and coercive control, exercised between children and within children’s relationships (both intimate and non-intimate). Online abuse is any form of abuse with a digital element, for example, bullying, sexting, online abuse, coercion and exploitation, peer-on-peer grooming, threatening language delivered via online means, distribution of sexualised content and harassment. Most online abuse of children involves peer abuse. And like all emotional abuse, the nature of online abuse means that it can seem invisible, and yet the harm incurred on children can be profound and long lasting.

Recent research
A survey, targeting senior leaders across more than 300 schools in England and Scotland and published last year, highlighted the issues faced in addressing the problems caused by peer-on-peer abuse. The results showed that online peer abuse is a growing problem in schools, with 90% of survey respondents reporting experiencing online peer abuse in their educational institution, and 83% of respondents saying incidents have increased over the last 3 years. The majority of respondents considered online peer abuse to begin before secondary school, particularly between the ages of 8-10 years, but that it was more prevalent in secondary school years overall. Education and awareness of the issues related to online peer abuse were generally delivered to children, but the manner and content of delivery varied greatly. 61% of respondents felt that they did not receive sufficient guidance and support from government and local authorities.

Latest guidance
But now new non-statutory guidance for schools and other registered settings was recently published in the summer, Teaching Online Safety (2019, DfE). It complements existing and forthcoming subjects including Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education, Health Education, Citizenship and Computing.

The new guidance covers the following themes and ideas in useful detail:

  1. Firstly, protecting children against online involves teaching children knowledge and skills that will help them navigate the online world safely and confidently – we can never, despite all the risks, just institute blanket bans on technology for children that would deny them on their behalf all the advantages that learning through and from information technology can offer. Education on assessing online risks could include discussing:
  • The ways in which someone may put themselves at risk online;
  • Risks posed by another person’s online behaviour;
  • When risk taking can be positive and negative;
  • “Online reputation” and the positive and negative aspects of an online digital footprint, including how past online behaviours could impact on their future when applying for a place at university or a job;
  • ‘Mob mentality’ or how people can be influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors on a largely emotional, rather than rational, basis;
  • Risks vs the benefits of sharing information online and how to make a judgement about when and how to share and who to share with;
  • Questions such as what might happen if I post something online? Who will see it? Who might they send it to?; and
  • Exploring how and when to seek support.
  1. In order to help children effectively, professionals need to understand children’s specific needs. Education in online safety must be targeted because different children will encounter different types of risks depending on their age and individual circumstances.
  2. There are many useful and indeed essential resources that schools in particular can call on to underpin their online safety education, in particular the ‘Education for a Connected World Framework’, developed by the UK Council for Internet Safety, which offers a clear thematic curriculum in management of online risks that pupils should have the opportunity to develop at different stages of their lives. The areas covered in terms of keeping safe online within the curriculum include:
  • Online relationships
  • Privacy and Security
  • Online reputation
  • Online bullying
  1. Considering how to support vulnerable pupils in particular should be a key aspect of online safety curriculum. Whilst any pupil can be vulnerable online, and their vulnerability fluctuate depending on their age, developmental stage and personal circumstance, some pupils, for example looked after children and those with special educational needs, may be more susceptible to online harm or have less support from family or friends in staying safe online. Schools are asked to consider how they tailor their offer to ensure these pupils receive the information and support they need.

Recommended resources
Here are the useful resources recommended particularly for vulnerable children:

The guidance recommends that setting embed teaching about online safety and harms within a whole school approach which should include:

  • Creating a culture of online safety
  • Proactively engaging staff, pupils and parents on issues of online safety
  • Reviewing and maintaining online safety principles (including training and policy)
  • Embedding online safety in the curriculum and in practice (for instance in responding effectively to concerns raised)

Childnet have also recently updated their parent and carer toolkit that will help parents have conversations about online safety. Their booklet ‘Let’s talk about life online’ includes ten key messages that should be shared with children:

  1. “You can always come to me if you need help.”
  2. “What would you do if this happened…?”
  3. “Remember that not everyone is who they say they are online.”
  4. “Keep your personal information safe, and other people’s too.”
  5. “Be respectful to others online.”
  6. “Think before you post.”
  7. “Remember to ask if it’s okay.”
  8. “Remember not everything is true online.”
  9. “The things other people post online might not always show what their life is really like.”
  10. “Recognise how going online makes you feel and take a break when you need to.”

Ensuring that staff teams are fully trained and briefed on online safety is the role of the Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) of the setting, although tasks can be delegated to an eSafety coordinator, someone who may have the aptitude and skills to make sense of the fast moving area of information technology. On my Advanced Safeguarding training for DSLs, online safety is discussed as a key safeguarding priority, and I can report that all the DSLs I have met in the course of my work have a real commitment to tackling the safeguarding risks presented by online technology.

Training for staff regarding online risks and other safeguarding concerns can also be carried out by Designated Safeguarding Leads. Our next 1 day Safeguarding Train the Trainer open course runs later this month if you’re interested in upskilling the DSL in your setting to deliver more staff training themselves. See our brochure for further information about how to book a place.