How To Keep Children Safe When School Goes Online
The Role of Schools in Protecting Children
The global community has learned a great deal about how emergencies affect children. When schooling is disrupted, children are more exposed to violence in the home, trafficking, child labour, child marriage, and even recruitment by armed groups in countries affected by violence. Take for instance, the Ebola crisis in West Africa: from 2014 to 2015 school closures during this health crisis meant more than just a loss of time spent learning. Children during the Ebola crisis were also at increased risk of violence, malnutrition, and teenage pregnancies. 1
This is why education, child-protection, and child-rights actors believe schools play an important role in not just educating children, but protecting them. In times of crisis, schools help re-establish normalcy by bringing predictability or routine to children and families. Schools make children’s needs more visible and help weave a protective layer of caring adults around children. Partnering with families to keep children safe, schools track attendance while teachers monitor children’s physical and emotional well-being.
Benefits & Risks of Online Learning
The aforementioned benefits of schooling require regular contact between teachers and students. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 1. 2 billion children have been affected by school closures. 2 As a result, huge numbers of children – the majority in developed countries – are moving towards some form of distance learning, limiting contact between students and teachers. Governments and school systems are promoting a myriad of solutions for students and families. These include online or offline learning platforms, digital content accessible via computers or mobile phones, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, and learning software.
This rapid move to online learning raises concerns. The first question most policymakers and educators ask is around equity and how to bridge the digital divide. However, a second, and equally important set of questions is around child safety online as many families and children join the digital space for the first time. There are questions like, “Do families know the risks and benefits associated with online learning? Do parents or children have the digital literacy skills to make online learning safe? What safeguards can be put in place to help keep children safe?”
While some families may be aware of the principles of digital literacy and online child safety, most are not. In many developing countries where families may be allowing children online for the first time, the need to promote child safety online and digital literacy skills is imperative.
“Without urgent action, this health crisis risks becoming a child rights crisis.” – Henriette Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF, April 9, 2020
Online platforms are valuable tools for education and communication. While there may be risks, the benefits of online learning and digital literacy are numerous and central to the development of 21st century skills. UNICEF defines digital literacy as the knowledge, skills and attitudes that allow children to be both safe and empowered in an increasingly digital world. 3
The benefits for online learning during COVID-19 and the use of online platforms, mobile devices, and chats has allowed teachers and schools to stay in contact with children and continue instruction and learning. This contact is helping preserve learning and student well-being. Teachers who are able to connect with students virtually may also provide emotional support, inquire about their student’s safety, and, when possible, refer services to families and children in need. By staying connected via mobile applications or learning platforms, teachers keep education front and center. Multiple investigations focused on families in adversity have shown that when children are out of school for extended periods, their risk of not returning to school increases. Staying connected can help families prioritize learning despite school closures. 4
Risks to Children
However, teachers and families also need to be aware of potential dangers associated with digital platforms, content, and messaging services. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.2 seeks to reduce violence against children. To achieve SDG 16.2, illegal online activities targeting children must be eliminated. While this requires coordinated effort to achieve, in the short term, organizations, school systems and ministries of education must raise awareness and offer strategies to increase child safety online. Some potential risks posed to children online may include:
- Inappropriate relationships: Children are at increased risk of sexual “grooming,” sexual violence or exploitation. Groups have also targeted children for radicalization and participation in extremist groups. As this emergency has opened the door to new channels of communication between teachers and students, policies need to be established to help teachers set up and manage personal or group communications and parents should always manage who is in communication with their child.
- Inappropriate behaviors: Both students and adults can engage in forms of online exploitation or abuse. This can come in the form of bullying or unwelcome comments. In times of social isolation, adolescents may be at increased risk of sharing images which can be shared and be used inappropriately.
- Inappropriate content: As many organizations recommend digital content and resources to families, children may be inadvertently exposed to misinformation, content with little or no educational value, or pornographic or violent content.
- Misuse of personal data: Some platforms may ask for students’ personal information. Mined personal information or images can contribute to forms of violence against children. This information may also be misused or sold.
Tips to Share with Parents
Tech-enabled solutions and digital content are part of the solution, both in response to COVID-19 and also in the future to help meet the education needs of diverse learners. However, in this rapid buildup of digital solutions, we must support families as they shift to online learning. Here are some simple messages that can be shared with parents or caregivers via messaging platforms, email or social media (or even in virtual or in-person training when possible).
- Manage your child’s access: While you may have limited time to supervise all the websites and platforms recommended by schools or teachers, going online with your child the first few times can allow you to prescreen content providers and discuss which sources are trusted.
- Talk to your child about online safety: Start talking to your child about the importance of staying safe online. You can partner with your child by explaining risks in a friendly and appropriate way. Focus on educational content from approved sources and encourage your child to think critically. Lay the foundation for positive and healthy online decision-making. Help build your child’s ability to think about the differences between what we say online and offline. Ask your child how they feel about certain posts. Ask how their own choices or online behaviors might make others feel.
- Manage screen time: Depending on the age of the child, some experts suggest limiting unsupervised screen time as well as distinguishing how screen time is spent. Playing video games and reading digital books are different in terms of developmental benefits to your child. Balance the time your child spends online with offline self-directed and creative learning offline as well as physical activity.
- Use parental protections: Check privacy settings and location services. Use parental controls, child-friendly browsers, apps, and search engines. Know your child’s passwords so you can monitor online activities and discuss choices your child makes when unsupervised online. Help your child understand what is acceptable to share with others online.
Worldreader’s Approach to Child Safety
As a digital reading charity, Worldreader takes child safety seriously. The Booksmart digital reading solution was designed specifically with children and families in mind, drawing on user-research and reader-insights from families in low-resource settings across several geographies. Beyond keeping the application simple and child-friendly, the book collections are age-appropriate and culturally appropriate having been curated with input from educators and ministries of education. Booksmart is also regularly reviewed on the Google PlayStore, Opera Mini, KaiOS Store and other major app platforms. Worldreader works with partners and communities to build the digital literacy skills that not only help families read safely from BookSmart but also build their confidence as they explore other digital resources safely.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions.
How You Can Help
Establishing safe spaces where children can communicate and collaborate with trusted teachers, peers, and content providers is key to quality learning in a crisis. During this pandemic, organizations need to think about facilitating content delivery and teaching digital literacy skills, while also promoting child safety online.
Online learning is here to stay. Schools and organizations are looking at how to more equitably expand online learning in the midst of this pandemic. They are also laying the foundation for equitable and safe access in the future. All stakeholders, including governments, regulators, operators, Internet service providers, NGOs, civil society and academia, must join forces to make the Internet and digital learning safe for children. The benefits of online or digital learning are enormous but the dividends can only be reaped if all children are safe to read, learn, and play online.
For more reading on this topic, please see these resources:
- Gubbels, J., van der Put, C.E. & Assink, M. Risk Factors for School Absenteeism and Dropout: A Meta-Analytic Review. J Youth Adolescence 48, 1637–1667 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-019-01072-5