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26 February 2019
By Rebecca Avery

Online Safety Alerts - Think Before you Scare

The Education Safeguarding Service regularly receives queries from educational settings in relation to sharing warnings with parents and carers and/or children about online safeguarding risks they have heard about via the media. Whilst sharing warning about specific risks, challenges, apps or trends is often done with good intentions, it can pose risks and can unintentionally have harmful consequences.

This guidance should be accessed in conjunction with the DfE 'Harmful online challenges and online hoaxes' guidance published on the 12th February 2021. This blog post, along with the DfE guidance, will support DSLs, educational setting leaders and other professionals approaches to online stories, challenges, and  hoaxes, and enable them to make informed decisions about appropriate action to take.

It is important that professionals and parents/carers work together to ensure children and young people know how to seek help if they see or experience upsetting things online; we encourage educational settings to keep an open dialogue with children and young people and stress the importance of professionals to 'think before they share' online warnings with their communities.

Children are naturally inclined to take risks as part of normal childhood development - by identifying a specific app or risk, we can encourage children to explore something that previously they had not been aware of, either out of curiosity, or because they are under the impression everyone else is using it (aka FOMO or “fear of missing out”).

Sharing warnings about harmful or distressing content (for example content regarding self-harm or suicide), electronically or otherwise, especially if it is unverified or untrue, can unintentionally have harmful consequences to children's health and well-being. A blog post which explores how adults such as school, parents or other agencies, responding to viral stories with a rushed response can cause additional issues is available on Cybertrauma, a blog by Cath Knibbs, a Child & Adult Psychotherapist. If children, or indeed adults, are exposed to content that highlights potentially harmful material or behaviour, even when meant as a warning, it can cause significant distress; this can be seen by an increase in reports to Childline following the 2017 “Killer Clown” craze. The publicity that arises from viral stories can also lead to copycat activity amongst vulnerable young people; if dangerous behaviours they were previously unaware of are brought to young people’s attention, it may place them at risk of significant risk of harm, either to themselves or others.

Whilst some children may feel confident to report concerns to staff following media reports, other children may use school equipment to research further information for themselves. School should re-evaluate (and in some cases alter) their filtering and monitoring approaches following high profile media stories. Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) should consider monitoring the behaviour of pupils who they feel may be particularly affected or placed at risk.

We encourage DSLs and other professionals to access the DfE 'Harmful online challenges and online hoaxes' guidance when considering what action to take if a harmful online challenge or online hoax might be circulating.

There will sadly always be risks posed to children, both on and offline. Whilst some concerns will be based on facts, they always need to be put into context. Any  online app, website or game which allows communication or the viewing, creation and sharing of content brings risks such as cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate or harmful content, and/or online sexual abuse and exploitation.

“Naming and shaming” specific content, challenges or online tools as dangerous can mean adults, even with the right intentions, focus on the app or risk as the problem rather than any underlying behaviours or vulnerabilities. This can lead to professionals and parents/carers becoming complacent and therefore being less aware of potential indicators and symptoms of harm or abuse. An over reliance on banning and blocking certain apps etc. can also  push children onto other platforms or cause them to hide their activity, and ultimately this can prevent them from disclosing concerns to an adult because they are afraid their internet access will be removed or they will be punished/blamed.

Educational settings and professionals should consider if it is always helpful to identify a specific app, TV show/film, game, 'challenge' or risk etc.  when talking with children and young people or parents/carers.

  • If there has not been a specific incident that directly involves member of the community, then we must be clear on what we hope to achieve by sharing this information.
    • If the intention is just to warn parents/carers, schools may end up in a never-ending battle and are unlikely to be able to keep up due to how quickly technology develops! Content which focuses on general online safety risks and useful tools to enable parents/carers to have appropriate discussions with their children is likely to be more successful at safeguarding in the long term.
  • If there has been specific reports or concerns in school and it is felt to be necessary by the DSL/leadership team to share advice with parents/carers, we suggest it is kept general and that any content shared is factual and provides practical advice e.g responsible use and safety features. Avoid using any personal opinions or judgements, as this can undermine the core messages and in some cases have a detrimental impact on working relationships.  Template letters can be found on the blog. Letters relating to specific issues (such as cyberbullying or underage use of social networking) or services are available from the Education Safeguarding Service upon request.
    • In some case, it can be more productive to speak directly to children and parents known to be involved in accessing or sharing concerning content.
  • If a child reports that they have seen distressing content online,appropriate pastoral support and care should be put in place for them and parents/carers should be spoken with directly on an individual basis. If a child is at risk of harm as a result of viewing or engaging with online content, schools should follow their child protection policy and speak with parents/carers and other agencies as appropriate. Children and/or adults who have seen distressing content should be advised to report it to the platform directly; SWGfL have checklists for popular platforms here, and Internet Matters and NSPCC provide additional guides and information regarding a range of popular apps.

We encourage DSLs and leaders to access the DfE 'Harmful online challenges and online hoaxes' guidance when considering sharing information and issue a warning to children, young people, parents, carers and staff. If Kent schools or settings are in doubt about whether to name an app, content or website, they can seek advice from the Education Safeguarding Service.

The LGfL DigiSafe Team have posted useful advice for schools here: 'Parents - scare or prepare?'

The following links highlight some useful advice to share with parents/carers:

A core value for all professionals and organisations working with children should be to not frighten or scaremonger. Therefore, we do not advise sending blanket warnings out to children or parents/carers or publicising issues in school newsletters or social media pages. In addition to the risks identified before, by publicising information relating viral challenges or stories, there is also a risk this could encourage individuals to view, create or share additional harmful content based around the scare.

Unverified warnings and hoaxes are not new issues for schools and “urban legends” for example have been spread via word of mouth for many years, however, the use of social media has significantly increased the scale and reach of such stories. Even in cases where warnings are shared through traditional routes, such as via letters, they can still be photographed and shared online. This can be a serious concern if warnings contain names or details that could be distressing or could compromise criminal investigations; specific information relating to live investigations should not be shared, unless advice has been sought from the police and/or Education Safeguarding Service.

Viral videos, scare or 'suicide' challenges often contain graphic, distressing and frightening imagery; we strongly recommend that these images should not be shared directly, especially with children and young people. Adults should be aware that if they mention specific challenges or content by name, it can lead to curious children and young people undertaking their own research so caution should still be used even if children and young people have already heard of a challenge or game.

Although some stories and warnings circulating online may be based on facts, many have been found to be hoaxes, urban myths, “fake news” or are sensationalised. For example in 2019, the “Momo Suicide Challenge” caused significant concerns throughout the UK following a hoax story which went viral and quickly escalated into a moral panic fuelled by sensationalist headlines and misinformation on social media. The SWGFL published the 'Digital Ghost Stories' report which explores how the situation escalated and suggests what professionals should consider when responding to viral online stories.

Sharing information or safety messages that are untrue or unfounded can significantly damage our credibility in the eyes of young people. Even when information comes from websites or organisations considered to be trustworthy, they may unknowingly be sharing hoaxes or “fake news” so it is crucial that we are all critical consumers and do not always accept or believe everything we read online! It’s a good idea for professionals to check such stories out with known, reliable and trustworthy sources before taking further action; this may include organisations such as the Education Safeguarding Service, the Professional Online Safety Helpline, NSPCC, Samaritans, CEOP, Childnet and the UK Safer Internet Centre.

Discussions relating to fake news can also provide schools with valuable teaching opportunities to develop children’s media literacy skills. Schools can use media reports to explore sensitive issues in a carefully managed and age appropriate way without placing children at risk or identifying specific behaviours.

Useful websites that can help determine if an online story is true include: 

Highlighting a frightening story may raise awareness in the short term, but it rarely has a lasting impact or results in long term behavioural change.  Schools should provide sensible and practical advice to children as well as parents/carers and staff.

When stories circulate online, they can be a good opportunity for DSLs to work with staff to share general online safety messages with pupils and to highlight the internal and external mechanisms for reporting online safety concerns, including upsetting content. Schools should focus on positive online behaviours, such as critical thinking, blocking and reporting, accessing appropriate support, such from CEOP, the IWF and ChildLine, and telling an adult if they see something online that makes them feel upset or distressed; age appropriate resources such as BBC Own It may be useful.

Some schools may feel it necessary to have open conversations (for example discussing how they can respond to worrying content they might hear about or see online) with pupils, but again should be mindful that naming specific videos or apps can encourage children to explore something potentially harmful and distressing they were previously unaware of, either out of curiosity, or because they want to feel involved in what everyone is talking about.  We should continue to have positive conversations with young people about the online world, so that they feel safe and confident to talk to us.

Some of the most important messages about keeping safe online, which apply to all websites, games and apps, that can be shared with children as well as parent/carers are:

  • Be aware of age restrictions and why they are in place
  • Use privacy settings and be aware that when things are posted online, they can always be copied and shared
  • Block and report users or posts that are worrying or upsetting to the website/app involved
  • If you are worried or upset by something you see or experience online, then talk to a trusted adult

Educational settings and professionals should encourage parents to discuss online safety at home and to talk to their child about what they do online. Useful websites to signpost parents/carers to include:

Additional links which may be helpful to share/use if there has been a specific concern in your school/setting:

Additional sources of support for young people experiencing mental health difficulties are:

The UK Safer Internet Centre have created a useful video to help us all consider the best steps to take if a ‘new’ online challenge or viral concern arises. How we as professional organisations working with children repond is a vital part of managing and escalating the risk.

Professionals and parents/carers should celebrate the exciting things, both on and offline, and provide sensible advice and assistance to children. If educational settings have specific concerns relating to the safety and wellbeing of any members of their community, they should always follow the appropriate safeguarding procedures.

Online dangers will always exist, much like in the real world. Partnership working and empowering adults as well as children and young people how to manage and mitigate risk is essential.

This blog was originally posted on the 28/4/17 and was last updated on 8/6/22.