The pandemic has meant that the online world for children has become a lifeline for education, entertainment and for many, the only means of social interaction.
But darker things are also happening there.
According to NSPCC research, in the first three months of the lockdown from March to June 2020, there were 1,200 offences of sexual communication with a child recorded. The data from the third lockdown, when children were inside more of the time, has yet to be collated, but it is likely to be troubling.
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Online safety has always been a key issue in education but now, as part of our children’s recovery, we need to understand that some will have experienced or are still experiencing exploitation online.
There are four main things that I look at when teaching students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) about online safety:
Telling any student “no” or “don’t” will more than likely have the opposite effect. For many, online systems offer information, hobbies, gaming, videos and, with the right guidance, social connection.
For SEND students, it can also be a vital communication and experience tool. Online safety should be about giving students the tools to be safe online and recognising the dangers of others. Childline has some brilliant and simple-to-understand advice for students around online safety.
A simple activity when discussing online safety is asking the students what social platforms they use. Talk about what they are for and any regulations they know. Equally, share online interests that you have; you’d be surprised how much it breaks the ice.
While discussing, create a list of platforms that your children are using. Take time to research these. There will be some platforms you may know, others less so. Try and keep up with the trends, but most importantly the content and restrictions for these platforms. Many online safety charities regularly update their blogs and site information with new online platforms. Internetmatters.org has a great range of free advice for parents and teachers.
To really engage students on this topic, they need to be away from the screen. There are some fantastic presenters with inclusive presentations and workshops based on true stories to help deliver online safety.
Likewise, there are new resources being released that teach in clever, different ways such as plays, books, and games. The Breck Foundation, for instance, has just released three pieces of music geared towards SEND children to help teach online safety for free.
It may seem obvious, but listen to students and the comments that they make in discussions. Students often make flippant comments without realising the truth underneath. Similarly, if a child wishes to speak to you whilst you're teaching online safety, please give them the time to talk. You may not initially get the whole story, but it could be the missing piece to a much bigger puzzle of what is transpiring online.
Online safety, especially in the aftermath of Covid, is a big task to tackle. Teachers need to build themselves a tool kit that they can use to educate students to enjoy the online world in a safe and fun way.
Mark Harrington is a SEND teacher with over 10 years' experience based in West Sussex