Online Safety and Engaging Students During Lockdown

Alan Mackenzie
March 10, 2021

It goes without saying that the pandemic has changed our lives in so many ways, both personally and professionally. In education many of us have had to re-think and diversify what we do; for me professionally I’m an online safety specialist, an area I have been passionate about since 2007. As a consultant I normally visit schools all over England, sometimes internationally, to engage with staff, parents and students. Or at least I did!

During the initial lockdown period and continuing to today, I was being asked if I could still provide online safety training. For staff and parents, the answer was yes, I simply moved to pre-recorded videos which have proved very popular. However, for students the answer wasn’t easy, and I had to do a lot of thinking, primarily because I was convinced at the time that the positive impact was questionable. In my talks in schools I rely heavily on engagement: questions, opinions, debate. Virtual was new for me (in relation to student talks) as I’m sure it was new for a great many.

However, online safety is now more important than it has ever been. More children at home online, more offenders at home online. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that risks and harm to children will (and has) increased. So, I had to do something, but with everyone under so much pressure at the moment that ‘something’ had to be simple.

In this article I would like to share with you what I have been doing; it isn’t revolutionary, it isn’t a solution for everything and neither will it fit the needs of everyone, but it has been working very well for me and my hope is that it gives you some ideas and maybe a little inspiration.

The three key aspects I wanted to meet were:

  • Simplicity.
  • Meets the needs of the students for a positive impact.
  • Meets the needs of the school.

 

Ask what they want, give what they need.

This is one of the principles I have always worked to whether I am physically in a school or delivering virtually, either in a webinar or a pre-recorded video.

Feedback from students about online safety talks they’ve had in the past are often filled with comments such as:

  • They’re judgemental, we’re not all sexting, bullying, meeting strangers etc.
  • They’re out of date, they don’t take into account what we’re actually doing online and how important these services are to us.
  • They’re scaremongering, in other words trying to educate through fear or extreme risk scenarios rather than balanced.

 

Opinions such as this are so incredibly important to understand because if this is what students are thinking, regardless of their age, then any talk to students will have very little, if any, positive impact.

 So, what do students want? Again, in discussion with students, the most common things they are asking for are:

  • Real life online – in other words, they want us to understand that whilst there may be a distinction between real and virtual lives for many adults, there is no distinction for students.
  • Help and support – they want us to understand that they are children and young people, that they will make mistakes and that is a part of the growing up process. They want help and support on how to recognize, manage and mitigate risk. Not simple messages such as ‘don’t talk to strangers’ and ‘don’t share personal information’ as these are over-simplified, have no context and don’t promote critical thinking.

This is where ‘ask what they want, give what they need’ comes in. By asking students what they would like help and support with, you are fulfilling their needs, a positive impact from the perspective of the students. Within your answers you can inject important safeguarding information, fulfilling the needs of the school. To explain this a little better, I’ll give two examples.

 

Example 1 – children aged 10-11

This school asked the children to write a letter to me (using their first name only). Within this letter they were to explain what troubles them online and to ask any questions they wanted. This may sound like a lot of work, getting all these questions in and having to answer them all. But I have found that different age groups have quite similar questions which can be grouped together very easily. The most popular concern and question was, “How can I stop my accounts getting hacked?”

This is a fairly easy one, commonly it is due to the use of poor/weak passwords or clicking on phishing links. For example, in games or seeing ads for ‘free Robux – click here’. By answering this question, I was able to talk about account security, not using the name of pets or your favorite football team as your password. I was able to talk about phishing within emails and social media; what phishing is, why criminals want your data and the social engineering tricks they use to trick you into clicking a link.

Another common question was, “Are apps really stealing data?” I suspect this was common at the time because TikTok and other social networks were quite prominent in the media at the time for their privacy practices. But this allowed me the opportunity to talk about personal and private data, why it isn’t just criminals that might want your data, but why companies gather data too. What are they collecting, what do they do with it? In turn this took me into areas such as digital footprint and digital permanence.

All the questions and answers I put together in a pre-recorded video, I uploaded the video onto a private Vimeo channel and the school sent the link to the children and they all watched the video together in an online lesson. The feedback was that the children loved it because it was personalized to them.

 

Example 2 – young people aged 14-16 

This was to be a webinar, and prior to the webinar the school polled the students for their questions and concerns. Again, these were all relatively similar and I was able to group very quickly into 4 subject areas. Unsurprisingly most of the questions were around the use of social media and one really interesting question was, “What would you say to someone who wants to build up a public social media presence as part of their career?”

I really like this question; talks are often around the ‘dangers’ of social media but little is discussed around the positives. In other words, there is an imbalance. But this question allowed me to talk about what employers might be looking for (e.g. will you be a good fit for the company?), give examples where employers might be put off, for example inappropriate usernames, bio images, references to sex, drugs, extreme views. Again, this allowed me to discuss digital permanence, as well as areas such as online disinhibition, filter bubbles, echo chambers and more.

The question also allowed me to give advice such as regularly checking the website www.haveibeenpwned.com to look for account compromises, as well as to search for themselves online to get an indication of what employers might see if they did a search. I was able to discuss the positives and negatives of private and public accounts, the benefits of authenticity when posting rather than perfection. This one seemingly simple question can take you into so many areas.

The two examples I have given are quite simple, but hopefully you can see the point: ask what they want, give what they need. And the beauty of this? You don’t need any resources. You might like to have a few screenshots, perhaps examples to provide a visual aspect to your explanation, but that’s it.

 

Advice

Hopefully the examples above have given you some ideas. The point is to keep it simple, keep it topical and keep it relevant. If you’re not comfortable answering some of the questions or don’t feel you have the experience, that’s okay, get the students to do the research and let them do the talking. Ask them to give opinions and enable debate.

Another thing you might like to try, which I have found to be very effective, is to ask the students a simple question, for example:

  • Do ‘likes’ matter? I guarantee that you will get some very interesting answers and debate from this very simple question. From your perspective you can inject questions into the debate, such as, “can getting/not getting likes have a detrimental effect on mental health and wellbeing?”, “Do you feel pressured (e.g. body image)?”

You can also set them a topical task or simple research project, for example:

  • What are filter bubbles and echo chambers? You can inject questions related to fake/false information (e.g. Covid-19vaccines). How do you know if the information is fake? How can you think critically to come to your own conclusion, even if everyone else in the filter bubble is saying something completely differently?

I hope this article has given you some thoughts. As I have already stated it isn’t a solution for everything and neither is it revolutionary, quite the opposite. But we all know that online safety always has been and always will be an important area of education both at school and at home. These ideas don’t have to be in a school environment, these can easily be discussions between children and parents at home. But given the pressure and disruption we are all feeling the main point is to keep things simple, but in away that will increase the likelihood of a positive impact.

Written by

Alan Mackenzie

Alan Mackenzie is an online safety specialist from the United Kingdom who works with children, young people, parents, schools, charities and more to empower the safe and fun use of technology. 

“Online safety has been a passion of mine for a very long time. I love technology and the huge benefits that can be realized through global connectivity and collaboration. For me, online safety is about reducing the risk of harm through good education, not scaremongering!”