Blog post

Online safety: what parents and schools can do to keep children safe online

In this blog, Dr Peter Macaulay, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, comments on what parents and schools can do to keep children safe online. 

By Dr Peter Macaulay - 21 July 2022

With the development of digital technology, children are spending increasingly more time online. While the online environment offers many recreational, educational, and social opportunities for children, it also presents many online risks and dangers. Some of these risks include cyberbullying, pornography, sharing of personal information, inappropriate or distressing content, contact with strangers, sexting, and trolling. The Online Safety Bill aims to outline new measures for a safer online environment, making technology and social media companies more accountable for dealing with harmful content and allowing children to maximise the benefits of digital technology. It was due to be discussed in Parliament but has now been paused until later in the year. As such, it is even more crucial for parents and schools to help keep children safe online.

A report from data gathered in 2020/21 shows that nearly all children (97%) aged 5-15-years use a device to go online, with 91% of 12–15-year-olds having access to their own smartphone. Our research looking at children’s knowledge of online risks found they tended to be poor at articulating for themselves exactly what those dangers were and how they personally could avoid them.

What can parents do?

As a parent you may find yourself concerned by your child’s online activity, or the types of online risks and dangers they may be exposed to. This is completely normal. When it comes to keeping children safe online, the key solution for parents is having a conversation.

Parental controls on devices can support you in managing time spent online and keeping children safe.

What can schools do?

Children of all ages across the education system can be vulnerable to online risks. While it is important children do feel safe online, these feelings would need to be based on sound knowledge of online risks and how to avoid them if children are to remain safe. So, it is important schools foster a positive school climate to promote online safety. Equipping children with knowledge of how to stay safe online via formal education is widely regarded as appropriate. Schools can embed tailored and age-appropriate online safety sessions to educate children on different types of online risks and dangers, and strategies to reduce vulnerability to such risks, and how to deal with them.

Our research suggests that teachers often struggle to keep up to date with the development of digital technology and the nature of different online risks but recognise the importance of online safety education.

The Department for Education has outlined key steps when teaching online safety in schools.

We have also developed a novel intervention to tackle online safety, the Cross-age Teaching Zone (CATZ), that schools can utilise to help children. In essence, CATZ invites older children (tutors) to design and deliver a lesson to younger children (tutees). The topic of the lesson is not fixed but selected by the school/teacher to improve the social, emotional, behavioural and well-being development of their pupils. One reason why CATZ is so successful at helping children learn important new things is that it overcomes resistance they often have when adults try to tell them what to do. Our research has shown the effective use of CATZ in promoting anti-bullying attitudes, increasing help-seeking behaviour, and educating children on online risks and ways to stay safe.

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About the author

Peter Macaulay wearing a white Lacoste t-shirt, smiling.

Dr Peter Macaulay
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Peter is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology within the College of Health, Psychology, and Social Care. Peter primarily teaches social and developmental psychology. Peter's research focuses on cyberbullying, face-to-face bullying, online safety, and bystander intervention. 

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