What is e-safety?

We explain what e-safety is and how it can be managed in schools and beyond

Child using tablet

In the grand scheme of things, the internet is still a relatively new phenomenon and as such, we're still figuring out how it will affect the world, ourselves and future generations. Put simply, e-safety refers to staying safe online, and as internet-accessible devices are given to people of younger ages, it's important that we're able to protect them from harmful content and services.

The challenged faced by regulators and lawmakers is defining the issue of online harms; it's difficult to categorise something that's forever in flux. However, we know things such as cyber bullying, exploitation and pornography run rife online and regulators are keen to limit the danger this poses to young people.

Areas of risk classifying e-safety

There are three key areas of risk when it comes to e-safety. Content, contact and conduct.

The first one, content, is about illegal, inappropriate and harmful content, such as images, text, video or sound.

Contact is concerned with who the children are interacting with online and directly leads into conduct. That is focused on how they are being contacted and what is being exchanged. What is this unknown person's behaviour? Is there a danger of things like grooming, bullying or revenge porn?

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A lot of a child's internet time will be conducted within a school environment and it's a key place where e-safety will be implemented. The NSPC has a number of guidelines for schools and educators to follow when protecting pupils online.

"A whole school approach to e-safety can help involve staff, governors, parents and pupils themselves in keeping children and young people safe online," it says.

Its resources help educational establishments implement the e-safety policies and procedures, IT infrastructure and support schools need, as well as helping schools and colleges develop "a trained workforce who are confident in online safety, identifying and responding to concerns."

How widespread is the issue?

In 2016, Internet Matters commissioned a survey on how parents and children are using the internet and the risks involved with those under the age of 16 using the internet.

It discovered that increasingly, children are using the internet away from desktops at home or school, whether on a mobile or a tablet. This means it's harder for adults to monitor usage and therefore, it's become more likely that children will be subjected to online bullying or inappropriate content, and more likely that they will come into contact with people who may have malicious intent.

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Parents are concerned about the amount of time their children are spending online, particularly when they are out of sight, such as in their bedrooms, the report revealed. However, parents are becoming more knowledgeable about what they can do to protect their children, including implementing antivirus software and parental controls to prevent children from accessing some content that is deemed unsuitable for their age groups.

Despite parents doing all they can to prevent their children accessing potentially dangerous content, a report by the UK Safer Internet Centre revealed that 70% of young people aged between 8 and 17 had seen images and videos not suitable for their age group online, while a fifth of the 1,500 young people questioned said they had received an image or video that aimed to bully them.

In an effort to quell the spread of indecent content reaching those it shouldn't, the government proposed a mandatory age verification system in order to view explicit materials in 2017. Plans set out under Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 involved users having to register with an age-restricted website using a traditional form of ID, such as a driver's licence, in order to proceed.

The plans were ultimately scrapped in October 2019 and responsibilities were instead put back in the hands of regulators and away from lawmakers. Critics claimed the divisive proposals would be easily bypassable and there were difficulties when it came to social media sites. However, the NSPCC still described the scrapping as "disappointing".

Teaching e-safety in schools

Online safety was introduced into all key stages of the curriculum in 2012, with schools required to teach children about how to stay safe online from the age of 5. The various levels of guidance are aimed at different age groups, ensuring all ages understand the risks and are able to alert an adult should they be concerned about someone's behaviour online or feel they are being targeted by cyber bullies.

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Ofsted specifies that schools must demonstrate they are protecting and educating both students and staff about how they should be using technology and they have the means to act appropriately should an issue be flagged to them, which could mean reporting such incidents to the governing body, parents, and authorities such as the police if deemed appropriate.

Whose responsibility is e-safety?

Although e-safety is listed by Ofsted as one area in which schools must take responsibility, it's also important that parents and carers take the matter seriously, ensuring their children are protected against the dangers of online. Businesses also play an important role, protecting their users against potentially dangerous activities online and providing the tools users need to alert authorities should they or friends be the subject of harmful online activity.

Parents, carers, family members and other adults should ensure they are aware of what children are doing online and should have processes in place to check children are using the internet and connected devices safely. As is the case with educational staff, parents should take the time to learn about e-safety and how to deal with situations when they arise.

Businesses also have the responsibility to ensure they are monitoring their services to minimise the risk to children and young people when online. This includes enforcing age limits to access certain services, ensuring services have the tools in place to report inappropriate content, and having clear communication channels with authorities should they need to report activities that could put safety at risk. 

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