How do we best educate children to be thoughtful about their online security in these rapidly changing times?

The challenge of staying up-to-date, when technological innovation gallops at breakneck speed and new tools are available daily, is a major challenge for most of us. However, it is not just an understanding of technology that is required. Important philosophical and political issues need to be discussed, such as privacy and surveillance, in an effort to maintain our democratic freedoms.

What does this mean for the classroom and home? How do we help children to be safe while respecting their privacy? How do we help them to understand the wider societal debate? What do young people need to know and when? How much privacy does a teenager need? What is the balance between parental and teacher responsibilities? What is it to be a good digital citizen?

Parents and teachers need to be both tech savvy and wise if they are to successfully answer these questions and support children to be informed digital citizens who are secure online. Young people are growing up in a society struggling with the ever-changing nature of privacy and debates are raging about how surveillance operates in democracies. High profile cases in the media of ‘whistleblowers’ who are either alerting the public to misuse of technology, or behaving in objectionable, treasonable ways, depending on your ideology, has highlighted the concept of ‘big data’ and how government and corporations leverage this information for a range of purposes, some of them dubious.

The clever young person can see the family or classroom as a microcosm of the larger world. This provides opportunities to discuss rights and responsibilities, at home and school or more generally, as a citizen. What are the agreed rules and what are the consequences for transgressing the boundaries? How can a parent be mindful of their child or teenager’s privacy in a sensible manner?

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by John Perivolaris

Often our own personal challenges mirror the Big Picture. In this case, the way governments and corporations behave, ethically or otherwise, should be part of the conversation we have with our children, especially teenagers. A general rule of thumb, for parents and teachers, which works in most situations, is to employ a policy of discussion and democratic decision-making at home or in the classroom. It is not always possible (he worriedly hears himself say) but is the best way to ensure that teenagers are more likely to behave in an appropriate way online. Talking is good.

These discussions will invariably involve personal security in a very practical way. How do I manage personal data on my computer, tablet and smartphone? What would happen if I lost my smartphone? What settings should be employed to ensure it could be traced or wiped? These are good conversations to have for all members of the family. These chats may well include issues for previous generations and a range of ironies may be noted. Where did the carbon copy from my chequebook end up when the waiter threw it in the bin with my credit card details imprinted for all to read? Whose phone number, full names and addresses are in the telephone directory and what did this mean for privacy? Why do most people have mailboxes without padlocks in their front yard?

A policy that parents may find worthy of discussion is where screens are located in the house. Is it wise to have bedrooms connected with video game platforms, televisions, computers, smartphones and other wirelessly connected devices? Not allowing screens in bedrooms but locating them in the communal living areas of the home has a host of health benefits that can be pointed out to children. For example, it is well documented that young people need more than 8 hours sleep each night. Many are not gaining the requisite hours and having the temptations of gaming, and Facebook, in the bedroom will prove a distraction for many. All devices could be charged overnight, in another space, including those of the adults.

Similarly, teachers should seek to have negotiated classroom rules, aligning with school policies, which have been formulated in consultation with parents and students. Most rules are easily agreed to as they are common sense and mirror other social conventions. Smartphones in classrooms can be a great tool or a distraction when the lesson is apparently irrelevant for some individuals. The rules need to be clear. Teachers who value the interests of their students tend to make better connections and have a more positive impact on learning outcomes. These adults have an important role in modelling appropriate use of technology, especially by demonstrating their own learning using technology safely.

Parents and teachers particularly need to model appropriate behaviour online. It is important that they have the required skills to maintain credibility with students. Adults need to say up-to-date and share their skills professionally, and for fun. Teachers and parents who cannot ‘dance the dance’ often do not have a great deal of credibility with teenagers, especially if they are pontificating about the evils of technology.

Children need to be encouraged to ask questions to adults about their technology habits and challenges. How do you use new (or old) technologies to create and share? How do you manage your devices and online security? What is your personal password management like? How did you overcome online challenges with people being nasty? What creative pieces do you share online? What is your publicly viewable digital identity and footprint like? What happens when your name is ‘googled’?

Digital citizenship is a concept of more importance than just being respectful to others online. Like citizenship, there are rights and responsibilities and it is complex, often vexed, with many perspectives jostling to be considered. Good digital citizens understand netiquette, how to manage money online safely, copyright issues and know how to protect their own reputation. They know about settings for social media sites and how to post photographs, especially of others, responsibly. It is understood that if you want to keep something private, do not post it online, even if you believe it cannot be viewed widely.

One skill, when things go wrong online, is to avoid escalating the situation. Responding inappropriately to an insult, or becoming involved in a ‘flame war’, tends to have unintended consequences. Teaching children to seek adult assistance is key. If something bothers them online, an image, comment or site, tell someone older about the challenge. Do not reveal your address, phone number or other details that identify your location to a stranger. Be careful that the metadata in photos, especially Instagram, does not reveal your whereabouts publicly.

Do not be paranoid though. The statistical reality is driving in a car is far more dangerous than hopping online. Statistically, a relative or close friend is more likely to hurt a young person emotionally, physically or sexually than someone met online. It is important to keep a sense of perspective about the dangers online. Often, risky or ill-considered online behaviour from young people mirrors far more worrying offline behaviours. Both worlds tend to merge – unsafely. Teachers and parents have a key role in understanding the larger challenges and finding the appropriate assistance.

We all inhabit a world that no longer forgets the online indiscretions of youth (middle or old age). This has serious implications for those seeking, or wishing to maintain, employment. Many companies outsource employee profiling and CVs are quietly pushed aside when online searches reveal the jobseeker does not have an appropriate reputation for the position. Being careful about what is posted online is a key skill for all.

This should not worry most students who would be best to focus on the opportunities afforded by technology and the World Wide Web. The jobseeker who knows any online search will reveal their creative work, positive contributions to a wide-range of sites and excellent digital reputation will soon see the far-reaching opportunities made possible by new technologies.

The opportunities to learn new skills online are extant. Often hobbies or interests discovered in lessons at school can lead to positive recognition as emerging talents are shared. Parents and teachers need to assist children to secure their future by developing skills and knowledge appropriate to the times.

In an age of radical transparency, adults have an important role to educate children in an effort to ensure their personal safety and digital security. There is no foolproof prescription that will do this effectively – as tools and contexts change rapidly – other than having open lines of communication in the home and classroom. In this connected age, personal relationships and trust are the keys to ensuring young people are nurtured as they grow to adulthood.

Some things never change.

Featured image: cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Truthout.org: http://flickr.com/photos/truthout/5079871358/

NB. This article also appears in Education Review.



  1. It is also a wise move for students to create a strong, positive digital footprint by providing evidence of their work, presentations, awards…..Make sure that there is plenty of positive online info way ahead of any negatives!

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