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Schools and Digital Footprints

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Do you know what your apparently screen-savvy children seeing, watching and doing online? More to the point, perhaps, do you know what their schools are encouraging them to do?

Last week my own son, aged 11 was told by his teacher to login to Prezi and Pinterest (Presentation and image sharing websites) for a project they were working on around Volcanoes. I was immediately worried. I felt strongly that he wasn't equipped to enter the bear pit that social media is without very strong guidance. Yet, this isn't an isolated case. Many primary and prep schools are logging children as young as ten years old into commercial, public, image sharing social sites such as Slideshare, YouTube, Glogster and Flickr to source and display school work. And while the intention behind this is undoubtedly good, the effects could be disastrous.

Today, there is no 'Chip Paper', unlike old print media, with the Internet, everything you put on the Internet is there, potentially, forever, affecting your future educational, career and even relationship prospects. Which is quite a burden for the average pre-teen. And this makes it extremely important that teachers should ensure that children establish good habits and avoid creating detrimental digital footprints for short-term gain.

So why can't parents win this battle?

Let's face it. Many children are so technologically fluent that we parents can struggle to keep up with them, let alone protect them. It's difficult to keep children off sites they claim all their friends are using, from Facebook to Skype and The Pirate Bay (I only just learned what P2P file sharing means - Holy hell - if you don't know, find out fast - I had no idea!!!), and that's despite the fact that the terms and conditions of most sites stipulate users must be aged 13 or over. So it is essential to consider the messages given to children when even their teachers ignore a site's age restrictions and disregard issues around rights and ownership. This unfortunately creates the impression that Internet rules are optional, which they definitely are not.

Rules and consequences

Image sharing sites carry the risk of accidental copyright infringement, breach of data protection law, and also raise issues of liability - I got a bill myself for $375 from the New York Times recently for using a screen shot of one of their news stories during an internal presentation. Usually covered by a special NLA license for use of material from newspapers for teaching, I always email to double check in advance. On the evening before the presentation, I emailed the NYT to confirm, but they didn't reply to me until after the event. As my presentation was to a visiting European delegation, the NYT argued that it was not strictly classed as teaching! I am just grateful that my employer can cover it. Apparently if I had loaded the slide onto Slideshare the charge would have been $10,000!

At the very minimum, it is essential to carry out a risk assessment before public and commercial social networking sites are used as learning tools in order to identify any potential harm and determine what measures can be taken to prevent it.

JISC (the Joint Information Systems Committee) UK champions on the use of digital technology in education, advise that schools should not log children under 14 into social sites without parental/guardian consent, and never without guidance on the copyright and ownership of material collated there. This is not a simple issue of some pupils being so bright, that age restrictions can be ignored. There are some digital literacies that will only be developed with maturity and deeper levels of understanding than a pre-teen may be capable of, specific guidance around copyright issues and appropriate role modelling.

Teachers must be clear that pupils understand the legalities of storing, reproducing and sharing the material sourced for projects and course work online, even if children are logged into these sites under assumed names.

Could your children's school make them victims of internet bullies?

The importance of establishing appropriate boundaries and guarding personal privacy need to be clearly understood by anyone using social media, particularly vulnerable and immature children and pre-teens. It is not enough any more to simply forbid them from speaking to strangers. Sadly, bullying and sexual abuse is far more commonly perpetrated by people they know than by strangers.

Any personal data at all from a child, be it a photo of a family pet or a recent holiday can cause jealousy or a backlash at school and be used an excuse to bully. I heard of one boy being bullied because he went skiing over Christmas after he put a photo online.

An image sharing space that enables conversation and comment can easily turn into a breeding ground for bullies and manipulative people, either of their own age, or older. One negative or judgmental comment can be enough to cause serious distress and misery to a child who checks in on his school project online at home. And don't assume they will tell you about it. It's likely children will keep their unhappiness to themselves, as some parents have learned far too late.

So what's the solution?

Many schools run sessions for parents on eSafety, facilitated by outside speakers, but this issue is far broader than encouraging parents of preteens to ban Facebook and texting on mobile phones. Responsibility for eSafety cannot be shifted entirely onto the parents, and it should never be taught in isolation. If children are being encouraged to source or display material for a school project online, it could be the ideal time to establish the basic principles of copyright, ownership and plagiarism. If children are too young to process this level of detail, then there is no point in schools directing them to use copyright cleared images: they are far too young to be using image sharing sites at all. The liability for the images loaded lies squarely with the user, so parental permission must always be sought and appropriate controls enabled in order to ensure that the pages are only accessible to invited staff and students. The default option on commercial sites is usually that all material is publicly available.

If your children are being encouraged to use these sites by their teachers, make an appointment and go and speak to the teacher. Check out the JISC Guidelines for educators, print them out and bring them to the meeting. Ask that to see the school's eSafety policy, and if they haven't got one, suggest that they get one!

Children should be sheltered from creating a digital footprint until they are mature enough to understand the potential consequences of immature youthful dialogue including bragging and bravado in social sites. I have no doubt that Conservative MP Caroline Spelman, wishes that her 17 year old son Jonny had never said a word on an online forum instead of being a subject of damaging tabloid stories about his youthful indiscretions. He would probably still have his career in rugby ahead of him, on the Junior England Team.

Schools must be sure to establish what will happen to material in the longer term, where is it hosted and who will be accountable if private images from some family under scrutiny find their way into the press. Are the schools considering the long-term consequences of how the children's data could be exploited for commercial use?

My daughter's school will moderate what the girls say if there is any bullying on their private social network, but what about if some actor's child who talks about family breakdown or a politician's child who loads up a picture of a holiday - not that she has any high profile school pals, but what if? Wouldn't the childhood musings of David Cameron or even Catherine Middleton's children be interesting fodder for any tabloid?

Social workers consider neglect to be a form of child abuse. Schools that encourage the use of these sites need to give serious attention to the curriculum and policy if they to avoid potential serious and long-term consequences. Schools that allow children to use the Internet without proper guidance are guilty of neglecting the children in their care.