Social Media and Online Safety at Primary School

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    In January this year it turned out that one of our 5th grades had a problem with cyberbullying, via WhatsApp. The class chat somehow had turned against the class speaker, the parents didn't know how to handle it, the teacher asked for help. I have been teaching online safety as part of an internal 'Digital Skills' curriculum for a few years now, and had the capacity to offer workshops for all 4th, 5th and 6th grades, until the end of this school year.


    It has been an interesting exercise, for the kids (I hope) but definitely also for me. When I came into this particular class, it didn't take long for the students to open up. Somehow the topic of online safety triggers this. It concerns them; kids know so much about social media on the one hand - and so little about the potential consequences at the same time. When I asked who was using Facebook, few kids came forward. I told them that I was not there to judge anyone; yet they were simply very much aware that the minimum age for Facebook is 13 and that anyone in Primary school was officially too young - and officially lying when they applied for this social network. After I repeated that I wasn't there to pass judgement and that it was very clear that under-13 year olds used Facebook, often with their parents' permission, one or two came forward, still a lot less than some years  ago. It seems that the scary side of Facebook had made its way into the collective mind of this age group. "Your profile is out there for millions to see!" "Whatever you share, belongs to Facebook, not to you!" The scares seemed real enough. It lead to an interesting chat about individual responsibility and how to protect yourself by adjusting your security and privacy settings, not sharing anything inappropriate. We use the 'WWGT' rule.... What Would Granny Think?


    So it seems that years of Facebook use, critical media and careful parents (and perhaps even the odd online safety workshop or two), have had an impact on the use of Facebook by younger users. But when I then asked who of these 10- and 11-year olds used WhatsApp, ALL hands shot up. No second-guessing here, nobody feeling the least bit apprehensive. I asked them; "How old do you think you should be to use WhatsApp?" The general consensus was somewhere between 10 and 12. I told them it is actually 16. Yes, sixteen. It came as a surprise. "What?!" "No way!" "Why...?" It made them think. They were a bit shocked. The accompanying teachers were too. Why is this? Why 16?! I didn't have to explain, as the stories came pouring out after a very short while. How some kids had been approached by strangers on WhatsApp, how easy it is to be included in some group, even when you don't want this, the spam some kids already had to deal with, and so on... They answered their own questions and became aware of the potential pitfalls.


    The power of these workshops does not lie in the videos I show them (even though we use great materials from Digizen and Common Sense Media), nor is it the posters or even the videos we make... it is because of what the students have to share. We spend most of the time talking - I spend most of the time listening actually... The bell rings after a double lesson and the students do not want to go outside. They want to discuss more... ask more, share their stories. However amazing our extended online learning environment may be, it is sometimes disconcerting to hear what our youngsters have to deal with online. They may be the digital natives, but they need opportunities to simply share their experiences and to listen to each other - and us - for interpretation and guidance.