Think SMART: Safeguarding children from digital dangers in the modern classroom

By Amy Newsome, Account Relationship Manager: South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique at British Council

by Tia

Today’s educators face a troubling digital dilemma: how to harness the power of technology for learning while safeguarding students from online dangers.

Technology is enhancing learning by providing immediate access to information for homework, research, and interactive learning experiences, but it also exposes children to significant risks, including cyberbullying and the potential for them to be exposed to harmful content.

Even though teachers can use certain tools and strategies to provide some protection for children in the classroom, it’s much harder to police their use of social media outside of school hours.

More than 95 per cent of children in South Africa have access to the Internet regularly, but their risky online behaviour can expose them to online violence, exploitation and abuse, according to the 2021 ‘SA Kids Online Study’.

Without adult supervision, children may experience or even contribute to cyberbullying, come across content that’s not suitable for their age, encounter strangers with bad intentions or expose their personal information. 

Misinformation is another risk; making sure that children have access to reliable information helps them to have a balanced view of the world around them and staying informed protects them from scams and hoaxes.

SA Kids Online found that:

●      70% of children surveyed use the Internet without parental consent.

●      25% confirmed that they have added people whom they have never met face-to-face to their friends or contacts list.

●      18% have sent a photo or video of themselves to a person they have never met face-to-face.

●      67% of child participants who have seen sexual images were exposed to them on an online device.

Because of the dual-edged nature of technology in education, we need robust strategies to safeguard children online.

Creating a safer internet

British Council, recognising how critical these challenges are, supports partner schools with resources aimed at boosting digital safety and awareness. For example, there is a platform available to all partner schools, called Online Support for Schools (OSS). There are courses, modules and webinars available for teachers and school leaders to improve their awareness and assist with their professional development. In addition, there are tools which include direct educational support and extend to comprehensive training for educators on navigating online risks, cyberbullying prevention, and building a safer online community. It’s a collaborative effort that includes educators, parents, and students themselves in creating a responsible and secure digital environment.

In light of the increased reliance on online learning platforms triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been proactive in launching resources tailored to enhancing digital literacy among students, such as the Digital Life Hacks programme.

British Council Partner Schools has developed a safeguarding toolkit to support schools, parents, carers and children to keep young people safe in the online world. The programme focuses on educating children about their online identity, the implications of their digital footprints, and strategies for engaging with social media mindfully and securely.

The British Council Partner Schools programme teaches the SMART rules, which can be adopted by all learners:

·       S for Safe: Keep personal details away from strangers.

·       M for Meet: Don’t meet people that you know online unless you’re with a trusted adult.

·       A for Accept: Don’t click any links that you’re unsure about.

·       R for Reliable: Question the reliability of information. Not everything you see on the internet is true. Check facts with a trusted adult.

·       T for Tell: Tell your parent, carer or trusted adult if something makes you feel uncomfortable or worried.

Practical tools for educators and school leaders include in-depth training courses on online safety, resources for creating safer school environments, and guidance on involving parents in the conversation about digital wellbeing.

The Online Schools Support platform, for example, offers courses for teachers to improve their understanding of digital safety, which can then be integrated into school curricula and policies.

Educators from various countries grapple with similar challenges. By working together, schools, parents, and students can create a more secure online learning environment for everyone.

Professional development events, such as Schools Now! 2024, held in Cape Town in February, play a crucial role in facilitating a global dialogue among educators on the challenges and solutions related to digital integration in education. These events offer platforms for sharing experiences, strategies, and best practices from diverse educational contexts, helping to grow a global community of educators committed to safeguarding children’s well-being in the digital world.

Safeguarding in education goes beyond mean/harmful text messages to include physical, emotional, and even psychological threats. Awareness of these issues is essential. Equally important is knowing the steps to take if there are concerns about a child’s safety. British Council Partner Schools have designated safeguarding contacts for reporting concerns. This ensures that children, teachers, and parents have access to helpful resources and know there are established channels to seek help or report issues.

Digital safety is an ongoing journey, but with continued collaboration and commitment, we can safeguard the well-being of children in the classroom and beyond.

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