What is e-safety?

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

Child using tablet

Digital technologies are advancing like nothing before it and as such, our children will grow up with gadgets and software that was just a concept when we were their ages. Unlike older generations that might not understand touchscreens, kids today assume everything works with a swipe. 

This can present challenges for parents, particularly when trying to keep their offspring save on the web. Regulators and lawmakers may assume they have a grasp of what children are doing online or via social media, but these are ever-changing technologies and trends that present new internet dangers on a daily basis. 

Thankfully, this is where e-safety comes in. It refers to online safety and particularly that of children. It aims to protect them from harmful content that could be found on websites or apps, such as cyber bullying, grooming or pornography. 

Teach e-safety comes with a ton of benefits, but it also helps to balance cautious parenting so that it doesn't become constant surveillance of what your child is doing online, potentially breaching their privacy

When you take your child to the park, you let them run free to climb and jump off stuff. You only check up on them every so often - the same should be true for the digital playground. 

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?

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 NSPCC 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?

Research conducted by Internet Matters five years ago revealed that more and more children between six and 16 were going online without their parents' oversight. Most parents said they didn't always monitor how their children were using the web, despite anxieties about unregulated screen time for youngsters, and the unintended consequences.  

The availability of hardware, such as laptops and tablets, and the increased role these play in essential activities such as work and study, is one key reason why children are browsing the internet more and more without supervision. Smartphones, which are as powerful as desktop machines, are universal, including among teenages, and youngsters are able to carry devices wherever they wish.

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Another reason is the heightening acceptance of children owning their own electronic devices, something that perhaps wouldn't have been possible as soon as 30 years ago. It's now much more common for younger people to take a more independent approach to their online activity. Sadly, however, large swathes of the internet are categorically not child-friendly and leave children exposed to risks and dangerous content.

A further study in 2017 by the UK Safer Internet Centre revealed that 70% of those aged eight to 17 had witnessed graphic content that was not suitable for their age group. Similarly, research by the American Psychology Association found that children are first exposed to online pornography at roughly the age of 13. With regards to cyber bullying, an ONS survey revealed that one in five between ten and 15 had experienced at the very least one form of online bullying in the year ending March 2020, which equates to roughly 764,000 children. Around a quarter of victims, however, kept this to themselves.

In 2017, 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. 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.

However, the plans were delayed in 2018 and ultimately scrapped a year later, putting the responsibilities back in the hands of regulators and away from lawmakers. Critics claimed the divisive proposals could be easily bypassed and there were difficulties when it came to social media sites. However, the NSPCC still described the scrapping as "disappointing".

Kids learning at home via a laptop

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.

According to Ofsted, schools are obliged to demonstrate that they are protecting both students and staff from harmful or illegal content as well as educating them on how technology should be used. Schools should also have the means to act in an appropriate manner when an issue is flagged to them, which includes reporting the incident to the governing body, parents and, if necessary, the authorities.

Whose responsibility is e-safety?

Although Ofsted lists e-safety as the responsibility of schools, parents and carers have just as significant of a role to play in educating the youth on the dangers of the web. Family members and other adults should pay attention to what children are up to online and they can do so by implementing processes to check whether the internet and connected devices are being used in a safe and secure manner. Just like their children's' teachers, parents and carers should also dedicate the time to educate themselves about e-safety and how to deal with issues when they arise.

Businesses should also take responsibility - and action - to protect their younger users against dangerous online activity. They can do that by making it easier for users to alert the authorities of any illegal or harmful content, as well as monitoring their services to minimise the risk to children and young people when online. This could include enforcing age restrictions for certain services, ensuring services have the tools in place to report inappropriate content and having clear communication channels with authorities in case it is necessary to file a report.

Homepage of the website for the Office for Standards in Education, Childrens Services and Skills

E-safety during lockdown

The coronavirus lockdown has seen a significant rise in online sexual abuse against children, who are now required to stay at home and therefore beyond the safety of security filters used by schools.

In fact, the spike in cases had been so significant that, in April, the National Crime Agency (NCA) issued a statement advising parents to carefully monitor what their children are doing online when they use the internet to access school resources.

Although Ofsted places the responsibility of e-safety on school, remote learning means that parents and carers have a greater role to play in the online safety of their children. A spokesperson for the department told IT Pro that "how Ofsted is overseeing remote learning, including matters of e-safety, is currently under review".

In order to raise awareness of the threat, the NCA has launched 15-minute activities to parents and carers to do with their children which provide e-safety resources and exercises for families of children across all age groups.

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