Safer Internet Day
I started at South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL) six years ago. I had a background in childhood learning and development and an interest in childhood psychology. Equally importantly I had grown up with the internet, so I understood many of the issues from the point of view of young people. I also knew people who had been exploited online, sometimes by their peers, sometimes by predators.
The variety of the job appealed as it is about listening to concerns, advising people and giving them the tools, resources and knowledge so they can make things better for the children in their care.
What is the SWGfL?
We are a leading partner of the UK Safer Internet Centre, an alliance of three charities with a mission to make the Internet a better place for children and young people. Childnet raises awareness and responds to policy and consultations. It works directly with children young people and parents. The Internet Watch Foundation focuses on removing child sexual abuse material from the web and runs a hotline where the public can report disturbing videos and images. We provide online training, reputation management, anonymous reporting, and runs a helpline for professionals working with children.
SWGfL works with schools, safeguarding leads, headteachers, police, social workers, youth workers, health workers, sports coaches and fostering and adoption staff. Really anyone who works with children.
We are not a service for parents so we signpost them to YoungMinds, ParentZone or Childnet but sometimes people just phone for information about filtering products or Wi-Fi controls and we help them with that. We never just turn anyone away.
How do you help schools protect their online reputation?
I lead the Professionals Online Safety Helpline. Schools come to us if there is material on social media sites that could impact their standing in the community. Sometimes parents air grievances and it goes beyond fair comment. We might get a call from a school that has seen damaging attacks on Facebook and wants to get a post taken down.
The majority of our work is helping the school to build a relationship with the parent. We don’t act as mediators but we can talk about different approaches they can try. In many cases, parents quickly regret their action. Often they have been letting off steam, haven’t really thought through the consequences. They agree to settle it amicably and delete the post. Sometimes it doesn’t go so well. Perhaps there has been a breakdown of relations, where the parties can’t be reconciled. Then we might have to advise the school to get in touch with the local authority legal department but usually we try to get them to talk to each other.
Do children’s posts about school cause trouble?
With increasing digital skills, we are seeing fake Instagram pages which look remarkably similar to the original with the school logo etc. The content and gossipy tone are the giveaway. Students may have done this as a joke but the trouble is that prospective parents may logon and it can affect how they see the school and whether they want to send their child there.
The site Rate My Teachers encouraged pupils to post comments about teachers and this has spread now to other platforms. Sometimes the comments are flippant, at other times spiteful but not illegal.
Sometimes children sound off and complain about teachers using insults bandied around in the playground, ‘perve’ ‘paedo’ etc. However. if there is an allegation of abuse by a student online, there needs to be a proper investigation and we get in touch with the school. Sometimes, they might feel it is unfounded or that the child is being a troublemaker. My job is to educate the school about policy and the need to follow whistle blowing procedures.
Sometimes that member of staff is put on extended leave which can cause rumours. We always advise the school to launch an investigation. If the school or local authority has a paperwork trail where they have brought in outsiders, perhaps someone from the local authority, perhaps the police and the person has been exonerated, then we can talk to our contacts at the social media platform and get the post taken down. We have really strong partnerships with social media platforms.
If we believe safeguarding may be an issue, we pass the case to our safeguarding lead at SWGFL who will contact the relevant authority for more assistance.
What other support do you provide?
Harmful content, sexting, hate speech. We collect data on so many different categories. In fact, if it happens on the Internet we have a category for it!
For all sorts of reasons, children in social care, foster care and children’s homes are likely to be even more vulnerable to online harm and sexual exploitation. We try to help social workers who might not always have a full understanding of online technical safety measures. We also help by running projects and training and creating resources. At the moment we are looking to work with foster carers online to deliver some new mandatory safety training.
How damaging is the sexual material on the internet?
We don’t talk to children much about sex, feelings, pornography either at school or at home in the UK.
Even from an early age children are very much aware of their own bodies and feelings and will turn to the internet to answer their questions about sex and relationships. What they see here is often staged, contrived, violent and aggressive sex. The statistics are scary, particularly the young age at which some of them are accessing such material.
But I do think that the media often over inflates this issue. The majority of children do not access porn and do not want to engage with it until they are older. Professionals who want to find out more about his issue may find our Let’s Talk About Porn resource helpful.
Why is sexting on the increase?
This is a reflection of our society and may have many motivations. Some see it as flirtation, something private but which for various reasons has gone viral. In many cases it is about bullying, humiliating, coercing, ridiculing and abusing another person. When social media takes celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian and turns them into stars, girls start to buy into the rhetoric that women are valued for their looks and sexual attributes.
We need to be educating children about sex at school, starting much earlier. In Denmark they start discussing relationships and love from the age of five and teach children that feeling controlled or coerced is not the hallmark of a healthy relationship.
With sexting, quite a lot of the materials start from the point of view of prevention but children who have had this experience may be made to feel even more vulnerable, isolated and ashamed. We have developed our own resources to help children deal with the the consequences So You Got Naked Online | SWGfL and a version for SEND learners.
What about the impact of ‘revenge porn’?
We also run a revenge porn helpline dedicated to providing expert support for adults over 18, who have had intimate images posted online without their consent. We can offer support and also sometimes get images and videos removed from the web. This can lift a very heavy burden from people and some describe it is the first step in the healing process.
This area of the law is under review right now. While sharing images is covered in law by the Criminal Justice and Court Act 2015, now peers and campaigners are looking to make it illegal also to threaten to share those images. This will become a crime in its own right via the Domestic Abuse Bill.
How do you cope with the stories you hear?
I have strong boundaries! When I finish for the day I turn off my work phone and don’t look at emails. Obviously, I don’t discuss details of my work outside – besides it would scare people! I go to the gym, get into music and the arts and enjoy my social life. At work, clinical supervision is provided once a fortnight or once a month and we get lots of support. Teambuilding helps with resilience. We often finish a call and spend a couple of minutes talking to someone in the team before fielding hte next call. Lockdown has made me appreciate how much we support one another. We can still get in touch via Skype or the phone and it really helps.
Many teachers will be struggling at the moment but there are things they can do which can make them feel a little better. Talk with colleagues. Log onto Education Support – the mental health and wellbeing charity for education staff. If you are a union member, contact them and make use of their services. They can put you in touch with people who can help.
For more information SWGfL – Safety & Security Online