Ed Tucker, Lee Pardy McLoughlin, Judith Staff, Carl Gottlieb and I shared our frustrations on Twitter after reading ‘Growing Up Digital’ which is a report from the Childrens Commissioner about, well, young people going up digital…. We have decided to write a formal response to the Childrens Commissioner and I will publish this in full when we have formally delivered it.
Before that happens I would like to share my piece which highlights some of the issues that I face as a trainer when it comes to engaging parents and carers.
I hope you find it interesting.
I have been delivering Online Safety training for staff, governors, students and parents / carers for around 6 years now and in all that time my biggest challenge remains parental engagement. I have a good deal of experience with parents and of their frustrations when it comes to keeping children safe. As in all areas of parenting some parents are proactive, some are passive, some wish they could do more and some have just about given up.
I do however believe that parents welcome advice and support but the barriers that prevent that engagement are as prevalent as ever, and part of this problem is with how we try break down these barriers and increase our reach.
In some ways I really can’t blame parents for not attending Online Safety sessions that are held in school. Let’s face it who really wants to sit in a school hall on a wet Wednesday evening and listen to a random stranger telling us about the horrors of being online; that the internet is full of strange weirdo’s who are just looking for opportunities to gain access to our children, that everyone is at risk of sexual exploitation, that we are not fulfilling our parenting duties properly. I recently sat through a ‘parents online safety session’ without admitting to the trainer that this is what I do as a job. It was awful and ticked all of the above boxes. Parents left the session feeling scared, confused, inadequate and unsure of what their next steps should be, with no strategies to better safeguard their children, no back up, no prevention, no educational resources, hints or tips.
“She got an iPad for Christmas, I really should put some settings on it, but I don’t know how” (parent yr 3 girl).
I am lucky to be able to go into classrooms and work directly with children. I asked 2 separate year 4 groups of children at a large primary school;
“How many of you use an x-box, PlayStation or similar to connect to the internet?” in both groups around 2/3 of the class raised their hands.
I then said “keep your hand raised if you play online games with friends from school or other people that you know in real life” most children in both classes kept their hands up.
I then asked the first group “how many of you play online games with strangers – people you don’t know in real life?” all but 2 children kept their hands raised and these children received stares and glowers from the others in the class that could mean only one thing – ‘don’t tell Miss that!”
The second group I phrased the question differently; “how many of you have the exciting opportunity to play games with people from all around the world, people that are just your in-game friends?” It will come as no surprise that most children kept their hands raised.
Whilst my questions were hardly scientific it shows that children know the right things to say and they know when they are doing something they shouldn’t be. Most children will say they know more about the internet than their parents, and a significant number of parents would agree with that. The problem is that children will share what is in their best interests to share. Which is why when trying to drum up interest in a parents session it concerns me when a parent said;
“I don’t need to attend your session, my son tells me everything I need to know” (parent yr4 child)
When we start to take parenting advice from our children we are on quite a slippery slope. Usually the parents that do turn up to sessions are never the ones you want to reach, they are already alert to some of the risks faced by their children and they have filters in place, they monitor, they question and take an interest in their child’s online life. We also need to open our eyes to the fact that the children of money rich, time poor parents are just as vulnerable as they have access to the latest kit and often left to their own devices to use it.
“I can’t believe she has done that [sexting], she has a horse…” (parent yr 9 girl)
Parents seem to forget that children are naturally inquisitive, they are risk takers and like to push boundaries – it is a natural part of growing up. Parents need to be taught about how the risks faced by children online are just as serious as the risks faced offline and how to deal with any worries or concerns they have as they would offline concerns.
We have many groups of children who do not benefit from Online Safety education, such as those who are home educated, long term sick and traveller children.
We don’t have enough high quality resources for SEND children and those that have English as a second language, including British Sign Language. We know that our SEND students are particularly vulnerable online as the internet is a great leveller and additional needs can easily be hidden from view.
Some of our parents may have additional needs and we need to support them better. We need to ensure that the resources we are rolling out are fit for purpose and meet the needs of all. We need to ensure that the education we are giving to parents is relevant and up to date as some parents base their advice on ‘how it was in my day’ with no thought or consideration to how things may have changed;
“I gave him my old iPhone, but its ok, he can’t get online because I haven’t put any credit on it” (parent of yr 10 SEND boy)
Tech has become so important to our children that the fear of having a device removed is a very powerful motivator for our children to become secretive about their behaviour or they may delete their online activity by clearing their history or use private browsing;
“She was on a site called ‘Talk to Strangers’ so I confiscated her phone for 2 weeks, she hasn’t been on the internet on her phone since then, and I know that’s true because I check her history every night” (Overheard, primary teacher and parent of yr 9 girl)
We need to ensure that parents dot have a knee jerk reaction when they find their children have done something risky. Parents need to be taught to open the lines of communication, talk to their children and be a safe place to fall if everything goes wrong. We know that children value the support of their parents but while parents are still confused about what to do and so children are guiding them, we are fighting a losing battle.
We need an innovative system that will truly engage parents and carers, one that is simple, empowering and effective. One which enable parents and carers to feel confident in their ability to keep their children safe online and in turn their children empowered to make safe choices.
We need to engage parents better and we need to do it now.
“I wish I could tell the parents about the cases of grooming and CSE we have recently had at this school, if they knew it was happening right here they would come to these sessions, because they don’t see it they don’t think their children are at risk”
(Headteacher, Primary school)