As Pew Internet’s March 2013 report on Teens and Technology reports (using US data), 95% percent of teens are online, a figure unchanged in the last seven years. However, the major change has been to the way in which they are online: rather than the family’s desktop or laptop PC connected by the family wireless router to the internet, or the school’s lab of PCs, they are increasingly using mobile devices with data connections that bypass home and school filtering. According to the research, 74% of teens in their study now access the internet this way, with a number of consequences for families and schools.
In particular, three components of a school’s online safety program need to be reconsidered:
- the technological controls in place
- the digital citizenship (or responsible use) program
- the promises made to parents about access during the school day.
- Firstly, it should be obvious that students can now easily bypass filtering and other technologies that schools (and parents) have long depended on to keep students and undesirable content apart. Not that this was ever the only, or even best, way to do so, but it was a way that technology staff could provide immediate support to teachers and required nothing much in the way of educating students – it was a barrier that worked when there was only one way ‘out’. With internet-enabled mobile devices increasingly available to students, not only can they use these to access the internet, they can set up hotspots to use more powerful devices, and share this connection with other students. This has been the case for several years, but it is still surprising how few teachers realise how little control they actually have through their schools’ filtering technology.
- As a result, there has to be a significant shift in the digital citizenship program. If students can use their mobile devices to access inappropriate materials, then it is even more important to teach them that they ought not access them, for reasons that are convincing ethically and in terms of their well-being. Clearly, this is not going to guarantee a student never encounters inappropriate materials either deliberately or accidentally, so the program needs to have in place a range of strategies students can use if they, or their friends, are affected. I would hazard that a number of schools are yet to make such a shift and still believe that the filtering they put in place at network level provides adequate protection. Further, the school/home relationship is vital: parents play an indispensable role, through reinforcing the messages from school and being aware of devices being used in the privacy of bedrooms. There are several good guides for parents on the kind of strategies that will help now published.
- Finally, schools must ensure the communication with parents on this matter is grounded in reality. While schools are often proud of the level of care they can provide – I can’t think of a school that is not – this must be based on what is possible, realistically. Ensuring that children, while on school premises, will not be able to access inappropriate content online cannot be guaranteed.
The hope, I believe, is both in educating parents about the realistic risks, and sharing with them ways to mitigate them, and educating students about the ways to manage the inevitable collision with unsavoury material, drawing on their desire to care for their own and their friends’ well-being.