Children’s smartphone ownership is growing faster than that for adults: a 50% rise since 2011, to almost 65%. Around 45% of UK adults own one. This means that schools and parents can struggle to make their cyberbullying and e-safety advice relevant. The reality is strikingly different from what many adults imagine it to be.
Only this week some primary teachers and parents confidently told me that teaching about cyberbullying and e-safety is not an issue for years 5 and 6. Yet last month, Ofcom reported that children are not simply using more media – they are adopting new devices earlier. Around one in seven (14%) of all children aged 5-15 now uses a tablet device at home, a threefold increase since 2011, while the average 8-11 year old sends 41 texts each week, almost double the number sent in 2011.
Parents tend to wait until their child is at least 10 years old before teaching them about staying safe on the internet, and in many primary schools someone comes in to give the ‘e-safety talk’ and then leaves. The subject may not be embedded day to day, but is simply a set of rules handed out in a ‘top down’ style every now and then and not always integrated with anti-bullying work. Keeping safe online and behaving well towards one another are among the most important skills our young people will need. Have we got this right?
A few years ago I began to wonder whether the e-safety advice we were giving to children and young people was effective. Were they even following this advice? There were few evaluations. To find out we needed to ask children and young people of all abilities and in a range of settings.
The Cybersurvey, an online questionnaire, was born after a long gestation period in which the question development and testing was carried out with a range of children and teenagers, e-safety champions, anti-bullying co-ordinators, safeguarding boards and other local authority services. Run annually since 2009, it opens a dialogue with young people through workshops held to discuss the results and explore new and innovative ideas. Over 10,000 young people later, we can see how in 2010/11 smartphones changed everything. Advice about family PCs in the living room were suddenly out of date as kids accessed the internet, and of course each other and strangers, via their phones or games consoles, in internet cafes and in friends’ homes.
The results were mixed. Some were very positive: the percentage of young people taught how to stay safe online and on mobiles was high and went up steadily each year. Respondents said the quality of what they received was good or quite good. The majority even said they got it at the right age. But fewer than half actually followed it, and those who were least likely to do so turned out to be either the most vulnerable or the age group that also reported the highest levels of cyberbullying, sexting and abusive behaviour: the 14-15 year olds.
Ofcom reminds us that texting is most prolific among 12-15 year olds, who send an average of 193 texts every week (almost 4 times the UK average of 50 texts per week) – a rapid rise from 12 months ago, when just 91 were sent by this age group.
Older girls (12-15 year olds) are texting significantly more than boys, sending an average of 221 messages a week – 35% more than boys of the same age, who send 164 a week.
Two peaks of cyberbullying emerged in the Cybersurvey. One is at age 10-11 when children are often first given a mobile – chain letters, homophobic bullying and ‘scary messages’ are common currency. The other is at age 14-15 with the rise of sexual jealousy, rumours and shunning an individual. Knowing this, could we undertake specific prevention work earlier? In workshops with young people we asked why so few 14 year olds follow the e-safety advice they have been taught (26% do so). How could it be delivered so that it was relevant and taken on board?
Try asking young people to pitch or Tweet their ideas to a panel of judges. You will be inspired!
• No more assemblies on e-safety!
• Keep it practical with actual demonstrations
• Present the information in short, digestible chunks
• Workshops are preferred
• Train older students to help younger ones and their parents
• Use drama and film to explore cyberbullying scenarios but include time on computers or phones to explore privacy settings, screen grabs to save evidence, reporting abuse and understanding privacy settings
• Include short bursts regularly, such as a quiz or game every week
• Make messages more relevant to the kind of life they actually lead online and on mobiles
• Be aware of gender and age nuances
Finally, consider a three-tier model of delivery: universal for most pupils; a more targeted level for vulnerable groups, people with special needs, those in care and those who are targets of bullying behaviour within school; and an intensive level of e-safety support for a small number of individuals who many be isolated, depressed, cyberbullied or otherwise in need. They are more likely to seek intimacy and friendship online than those whose friendships or family relationships in the real world are strong. They take risks in chat rooms and say: ‘When I’m online I forget about the e-safety advice.’
Adrienne Katz is a director of the BIG Award, the national award for excellence in bullying intervention (www.bullyinginterventiongroup.co.uk). She is the author of ‘Cyberbullying and e-safety: what educators and other professionals need to know’ (2012), published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers (www.JKP.com).