Every school has a general duty of care for all of the children in its care. This extends to ensuring children’s safety on the internet.

The internet can be enormously beneficial for children. Its huge richness and diversity is part of the attraction. But as the mass media have sadly reminded us, all too often there are hazards associated with internet use. A failure to take reasonable steps to make oneself aware of these hazards, or a failure to take reasonable steps to minimise or avoid them, could put children at risk and therefore expose an individual teacher and the school to potential legal liabilities.

In practical terms almost every school will now provide internet access from behind a battery of defensive filtering and blocking or monitoring technologies. Given the potential legal risks this is perhaps an understandable reaction, but however strong the protective technology, awareness of the residual risks is still essential: All technology eventually fails and there are often particularly ingenious children who find new ways of beating the system.

Remember:

  • If the technology is too tight or too restrictive it may make the whole online experience too anodyne or dull to capture or engage pupils’ interest. This is to be avoided at all costs, unless children are to lose what is potentially a very beneficial resource.
  • If any form of monitoring or recording software is being used, or if the school reserves the right to look at any incoming or outgoing emails or other communications (and very many do), this needs to be spelt out clearly otherwise the school may run into legal difficulties in relation to the child’s right to privacy.

Desktop computers are now not the only way of accessing the internet. Schools need to be aware that other new technologies can provide the means of going online and that these other technologies can put children at risk in  similar ways. For example, many mobile phones and games consoles come with a built-in means of accessing the internet, or they can facilitate other forms of interactive, online communications or exchanges e.g. through the mobile phone company’s own network.

Mobile phones also often have still and video cameras built in to them, and have large amounts of memory which can be used to store pictures, sound and other materials. With the arrival of 3G (“Third Generation”) networks the transmission speeds available on mobiles will significantly increase and with this increase in speed we can expect to see greater use being made of the camera capabilities on mobiles and other ways of exchanging a range of materials via mobiles.

AREAS OF ONLINE RISK

There are three broad areas of risk to children online: contact, content and commerce. There is also a further, related risk from children using the
internet or other new, interactive technologies excessively. This can hamper the development of social skills, or be a sign of an underlying problem that ought to be addressed. Excessive use can also contribute to problems such as obesity, when over-use of technology becomes a substitute for healthy, outdoor activities or taking exercise.

CONTACT

Notoriously the internet has been much used by child sex offenders. Many of them believe they can go online anonymously. The internet provides child sex offenders with a means of contacting like-minded offenders, helping to “normalize” or expand their deviant behaviour. It also provides them with access to child pornography and, crucially, it has given them a new means of contacting children with whom they would never otherwise have any kind of contact.

There have now been many well documented cases of child sex offenders using the internet to make contact with children and young people. They target them through chat rooms, newsgroups, email, interactive games and through peer2peer software. In the case of chat rooms, paedophiles will frequently target fashion or sport based chat areas, or web sites with chat linked to sites publishing content of interest to young people, such as pop stars.

Often, but by no means always, child sex offenders initially adopt a false identity in order to establish contact with a child and seek to win their trust as they begin a process of “grooming” i.e.  manipulating the child’s affections and sexualizing their conversations with the child, with a view to arranging a real world meeting where they intend to abuse the child. Grooming is now a criminal offence.

CONTENT

Children and young people may inadvertently or deliberately access either illegal content or age inappropriate sexual or violent material or material which is, for example, linked to forms of self-harm or suicide. If you believe you have found any illegal material on the internet contact the Internet Watch Foundation immediately on www.iwf.org.uk. The IWF also explains what types of materials are illegal in the UK and how to make a report.

COMMERCE

Children can be taken advantage of by fraudulent, unscrupulous or unethical individuals such as those who promise to send large amounts of money in return for co-operation in a banking matter. These groups can trick anyone into giving away details of or passwords to online banking facilities (this is known as “phishing”).

Companies which sell poor quality products or services such as low grade ring tones for mobiles, are often a front for fraud. In 2005 the inelegantly named “Dung Beatle Ltd.” was fined by ICTSIS, the premium rate regulator, following complaints received about an unsolicited text message. This text claimed the recipient had ordered a ringtone for which they would be charged £4.50 and asked them to dial a premium rate number should the ring-tone not arrive.

In some cases, the purchase of a product can have the effect of locking the purchaser into a disadvantageous contract. Some will offer “prizes” in return for commercially valuable information, without disclosing how they intend to use it e.g. they will ask about a child’s parents’ occupations or incomes, which could make the parents vulnerable to fraud themselves.

These three areas of risk are best combatted by an approved IT safety policy.

SAFEGUARDS – YOUR ACCEPTABLE USE POLICY

It is now a standard recommendation of BECTa (“British Communications Technology Agency”, see www.becta.org.uk) that every school has an “Acceptable Use Policy” (AUP) to cover IT use by pupils and staff. This advice, by extension, also applies to any schoolrelated club or activity and establishments which permit or provide internet access on their premises. It is strongly advised that schools publish a written AUP describing their expectations of staff and pupils to make official policy clear and indisputable. The AUP should cover use of the internet, mobile phones and games consoles, or any interactive or other technologies you might provide or allow to be used. It follows that any staff with supervisory responsibilities for the children must themselves be conversant and comfortable with the technology.

The AUP should be followed by all establishments which allow internet access while children are in their care. However, just as importantly, the same rules must apply where they provide or even permit access to other technologies by children whilst they are in their care. This means that where pupils use mobile phones or games consoles in school, they should be made aware of the Acceptable Use Policy and encouraged to follow it. Strictly speaking, before a school allows any individual child either to access the internet or to make use of other interactive technologies while in its care, they should undertake a risk assessment to satisfy themselves that the particular child understands and is likely to follow the AUP.

A good way of signifying that the appropriate risk assessment has been carried out is to ask the child and his or her parent or carer, to sign the AUP confirming that they have understood and agreed to the rules set out within it. A copy of the AUP should be given to the parent or carer, a copy to the child, and a third copy kept on file for future reference. In the case of an agreement of this kind being signed, any signatures must be based on informed consent. You may need to consider providing some extra information or training to the parents or carers and the child, before asking them to sign the AUP. This is one way of ensuring they are aware of the risks and the reasons why such a policy is so important within schools, and might encourage them to take it more seriously.

Please also see the NAACE (National Association of Advisers for Computer Education) website www.naace.org for more detailed advice about creating an AUP for schools.

MOBILE PHONES

With computers, it is very likely that the school will have installed safety software to filter out or block access to undesirable areas of the internet, although this is not yet standard in all areas. However, the situation in regards to pupil use of mobile phones is slightly different. Within the UK all of the network providers have established an age verification system which automatically limits access to adult material and services to persons under the age of 18 supplied over or via the phone companies’ own networks. This applies to all networks, however for internet content some networks do not turn this on by default, it must be requested.

In relation to this part of the AUP, for these safeguards to apply it is important to establish that the mobile is connected to a UK-based network, that the age bar has not been lifted on the child’s phone, that a filtering and blocking package is installed and working, and also to establish whether or not the phone has been put on any location service. Location services pick up on a mobile phone’s radio signal and allow other people to track the physical location of individuals whose numbers have been signed up to the service. If the phone is turned off or is out of range, the service will display where the person was at their last connected moment. If a child’s mobile phone has been put on such a service, it is important to confirm exactly who is authorised to locate the child.

In relation to games consoles with interactive capabilities, it is important to demand that only age appropriate games can be played while the school is responsible for the child. Also to establish what safeguards, if any, are built-in to the console or the service, especially in relation to the possibility of communicating with other players. This will be extremely difficult to do in practice and it is therefore likely that many schools will not allow such consoles to be used on school premises or during times when pupils are under their control.

SAFETY TIPS FOR PUPILS

Your AUP should specify a range of do’s and don’ts. It might also be wise to include within the AUP document a basic set of safety tips. In addition these  could be stuck on a piece of cardboard or laminated paper and prominently fixed on a wall near to the computers, or they might be affixed individually to each of the computers. Many organizations now provide advice on “netiquette”, which might include the following.

  • When in any kind of chat room never give out any personal information about yourself, your family or anyone else e.g. mobile or other phone numbers, address, school, place of work, and never send a photo to someone you do not know and trust in the real world
  • Log in to chat rooms using a nickname and be careful what you disclose about yourself in your personal profile 
  • Chat safely – you can never be sure who you are dealing with. They could be deceiving you 
  • Never arrange a real world meeting with someone you only know through the internet, but if you do decide to ignore this advice always check with your parents or carer first. Always take a trusted adult with you, at least to the first meeting, and always make sure that the first meeting is in a public place with lots of other people around 
  • We all play games of some kind from time to time in which we might pretend to be another character, and that’s OK. But don’t pretend to be someone or something you are not in a way that might hurt someone else’s feelings or cause them upset 
  • Do not accept anyone on to your IM Buddy List unless you know who they really are, and do not pass on other people’s IM id’s without their permission 
  • If something happens in a chat room or in an IM session that makes you feel uncomfortable, just leave the chat room or get out of the IM session. Tell a trusted adult and, if you can, keep a copy of what it was that upset you.
  • If you end up on a web site with material which you find upsetting or offensive, leave the site and again inform a trusted adult. 
  • Every organisation providing internet access for children should have a procedure in place which will route concerns of the kind described above to the appropriate agency e.g. the police, the IWF or the ISP.
  • If anyone makes you an offer that sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

PUBLISHING IMAGES OF CHILDREN IN YOUR CHARGE

Paedophiles will often make use of perfectly innocent images of children. While this is a deeply distasteful idea, even more worrying perhaps is the ease with which they could potentially trace a child’s photo to a name and hence a specific geographical location. It is essential when publishing images of children to ensure there is no link between a particular picture and the names of the children shown within that picture. If you publish the children’s names do not use their pictures in a way that would allow anyone to associate a picture with a specific name.

If you really must publish pictures of individual, named children, you might consider establishing a closed web site which is password protected to bar unknown users form accessing the site. However, even then be mindful of the fact that passwords do get lost and can be picked up or hacked by other unauthorized and unwanted users.

Ensure that the written permission of the parent or carer is given before any pictures of a child are published, whether on an internal or external site.

BULLYING AND HARASSMENT

Bullying via text messages sent to mobile phones can be every bit as hurtful and harmful as traditional forms of bullying for the young people involved. Bullying or harassment via email, instant messages, bulletin boards or in other ways are also, sadly, increasingly commonplace. See www.bullying.co.uk and NCH’s web site www.stopbully.com for some further details.

Another very distasteful and increasingly common form of bullying is creating a web site or ‘blog’ which spreads lies about individual pupils within a school. The fact that this and other types of online bullying might take place out of school hours and off school premises should be secondary considerations. They still have a lasting impact on the quality and nature of school life and the life of individual pupils, and therefore are very much part of the school’s business.

Previous research for NCH and Tesco Mobile that found one in five young people have been bullied or threatened by mobile phone or computer (through text messages, emails, photos, etc). Nearly three-quarters of teachers throughout the UK are worried that their pupils could become victims of mobile phone bullying. Just over half (51%) told researchers that this has already happened to at least one of their pupils, and over two-thirds (67%) of these are primary school teachers of children aged 11 and under.

There is no direct way of combating this activity other than encouraging pupils to behave well, and to make it clear to pupils that all bullying is against the school code and that they will be dealt with harshly if they transgress.

A QUICK NOTE ON THEFT AND OTHER TECHNOLOGY

Schools and other educational establishments will be aware of the risk of theft where mobile phones, games consoles and other portable electronic equipment or software are concerned. A simple step to help discourage theft of items such as mobile phones (which are a common target) is to insist that the ownership of all items of value brought on to the premises is clearly labelled. The police also run a number of schemes to give unique identifiers for bicycles, mobile phones and many other portable items. If would-be thieves know that goods have been marked as belonging to someone else they are less likely to steal them because it would be very easy to prove that they are not the rightful owner.

Children and young people ought to be reminded about issues surrounding intellectual property rights e.g. the copyright laws. There are several peer2peer applications around, otherwise known as file-sharing programmes e.g. Kazaa, Morpheus and similar which are “free” on the internet. In fact they will rarely be truly “free” as they will often come loaded with advertising or spyware which informs commercial concerns about how an individual uses the internet.

Many young people have used peer2peer applications to access music without paying for it. There are three problems with this: Firstly, some of the sites or other computers they may be accessing could also contain other material which is extremely distasteful, frightening or even illegal.

Secondly, as well as consuming huge amounts of bandwidth, some of the sites or computers they may be accessing might also be enclosing viruses or Trojans with their packages. These could completely destroy the computer used to access them or take it over for someone else’s use.

Thirdly, these days large music companies are much more concerned about this type of activity and they are monitoring the use of these programmes. They have been known to calculate the value of the music that has been downloaded and send the bill to the child and their parents. It could render the school liable if they are, in effect, allowing the downloading to happen on or from school premises. These bills have sometimes amounted to many thousands of pounds; a costly learning exercise.

The simplest way to avoid these potential problems is to forbid all of these file sharing applications by blocking them at a technical level.

SOURCES OF ADVICE

There are lots of Government or industry sponsored web sites which provide a wealth of information about the safe use of the internet and other digital technologies. However for anyone involved in education the first place to visit has to be the BECTa web site at www.becta.org.uk

See also www.nch.org.uk/itok and www.thinkuknow.co.uk

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