THE BLOG

Protecting Pupils' Hearts And Minds

24/01/2017 16:27 GMT | Updated 24/01/2017 16:27 GMT

By Claire Stead, Online Safety Ambassador at Smoothwall

Mental health is a sensitive issue, and is not so openly talked about and acknowledged as it ought to be. It is quite shocking therefore, that one in four people in the UK has a mental disorder at some point in their life; that's an incredible quarter of the population, yet it is still seen by some as a 'taboo' subject.

The issue has been recently raised, however, by Prime Minister Theresa May, with her first major speech of the year centred on raising the profile of mental health. In her speech, May set out plans to drive awareness and transform attitudes in the UK towards mental health issues, focusing on children and young people at the forefront.

Figures have revealed young people are the most vulnerable to mental health problems, with over half of mental health issues starting by the age of 14 and 75% by 18. It is clear therefore that more needs to be done to safeguard and address the welfare of the younger generations, protecting their wellbeing in the future.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the care for children and young people was a "black spot" and that urgent attention was needed as the pressures of social media, cyberbullying and a big increase in self-harming was a "massive worry for parents".

Schools can and should have a large role to play in this, as young people spend such a vast amount of time within their walls - it shouldn't just be left to the parents at home. It's not only a moral requirement for adults to protect their children on the web, but thanks to the changes in government guidelines last year by the Department for Education, it's now a legal one for schools to take the necessary precautions to keep pupils safe online. But crucially, they need to have the tools to do so.

Youngsters today are usually one step ahead of the digital game. Often seeing web restrictions and online protection as an irritant, they try to find a way to bypass it. To combat the digital deviants in an effort to safeguard them, schools need to ensure that teachers have the skills and tools to protect children fully, digitally enabling them without risking their safety.

There are tools and technologies that can work for, and not against, you. Having a context aware web filter will empower schools to prevent access to specific pages based on its content, but still permit access to particular search terms that could aid a child's development. For instance, if a student is looking for advice on depression, searching for a term like 'self-harm' could help.

Moreover, by being able to intelligently monitor keystroke activity, both online and offline, allowing visibility of conversations or content being created in chatrooms, documents and messaging apps, schools can create smart and safe profiles of its pupils. This allows accurate moderation between a one-off incident or a chain of events so schools know when to escalate an issue, catching incidents of cyberbullying or the mental state of a pupil early on.

The safety and welfare of our children needs to be at the forefront of every school agenda and online protection plays a vital part in that. That said, it ought to be done in a manner that does not hinder a child's learning and development. Schools need to take an intelligent approach that both enables children to learn freely and use technology at school, whilst remaining protected. Clever and contextual monitoring is the only way to let children search freely, whilst ensuring that they are protected and kept safe.