Teaching Our Children Good Online Behaviour

Young children using a tablet computer while their happy parents are watching in their living room
Young children using a tablet computer while their happy parents are watching in their living room

The new NSPCC ad on online safety 'I saw your willy' has been making headlines – but do we need a more sophisticated message for our digital native children?

Yes, it's a worthy message to get out there – social media can have unfortunate consequences, and ultimately it can be used by all sorts of unpleasant people in order to groom children.

This message of online safety is hammered home to parents on a regular basis. We know to tell our children not to take pictures of their willies and email, message, or post them on the internet.

But what about the greyer areas of online etiquette? The dangers of losing friends, embarrassing yourself or landing yourself in legal hot water?

Social media doesn't have to be terrifying, but children need to be taught more than just the basics of how to avoid paedophiles.

Many schools now start their children on internal blogging and email systems as young as four years old.

These children may have fairly sophisticated technical skills, but they don't necessarily have the social nous to go along with them. As we discovered when we found our five-year-old daughter had been sending dozens of unrequited emails a day to her classmates. And when... well, I won't tell you exactly what she did, but let's just say she may have a career in hacking ahead of her.

Susan Elkin, education writer and former teacher, says it's crucial we teach social media skills in schools.

She says: "Just as schools once routinely taught letter writing so now I think they should ensure that children know how to communicate effectively and politely though digital media. And it really isn't anything to be frightened of. As with so much else it's a matter of learning by - supervised - doing."

This can be as simple as knowing how to write an email appropriately for the right audience – not littering your emails to a teacher with txt spk and emoticons, for a start...

Then there are more complex etiquette issues, such as how often you should email someone without a reply – and who it's appropriate to send 'I LOVE YOU' messages to on a daily basis.

The great thing about these internal blogging and email systems in schools is that they can help pick up some of these issues before children venture out into the big wide world of Facebook and Twitter.

That's as long as these children are being given the right advice – and this has to come from parents as well as the school.

Hannah Booth, Educational Advisor for DB Primary, which provides a learning platform for primary schools, says schools are now starting to integrate their policies on behaviour and social etiquette with their IT education.

DB Primary comes with a 'whistle' which children can activate if they are upset by anything, along with a profanity filter and systems for teachers to monitor children's use.

However, Booth points out: "What teachers are starting to find they need to do more, is to have a more open dialogue with parents. If there are ever any computing related problems it often occurs when children are using computers and accessing files at home, not in the school environment."

So, here are some of the things I would like to teach my daughters, sooner rather than later (as well as not to put naked pictures of themselves on the internet):

• Passwords are really important. Keep yours secret, and if you find out someone else's, tell them to change it. Elkin says: "Some things are private. Bottoms, for example. It's not difficult to get the same message across about passwords, even to quite young children."

• Think very carefully before you make a joke on social media, particularly if it's about bombs, hurting people, race, or anything vaguely controversial.

• Tagging people in endless group emails, group texts or Twitter conversations can be really annoying unless you're sure they actually want to be included in every single back and forth. Devorah Heitner, PhD, of Raising Digital Natives, says: "Beware the group text. They can be annoying, yet hard to ignore."

• Don't write anything on Facebook or Twitter that you wouldn't say to someone's face. Even if you would say it to their face, think about whether it could be misinterpreted when seen in black and white.

• If you have upset someone, try to resolve it in person rather than getting into a back-and-forth on the internet. Heitner says: "Make sure your child knows that if conflicts or hurt feelings come up via text or social media, they are usually best resolved face to face so intention and effect are clear."

• Don't spread rumours or fibs online. There's a strong case that older children, who are going to have access to Facebook and Twitter, should be given some kind of media law training to avoid getting themselves in serious trouble, as in the case of people who spread information on Twitter about the false and inaccurate connection of Lord McAlpine to allegations of child abuse. But a simplified message can be given to young children.

• Just because someone wants to be your 'friend' online, doesn't mean you have to accept them. This is something parents can talk about and relate to with their children – we don't accept every Facebook friend request and they don't have to either.

• The internet is forever and if you do something silly or unpleasant, you will probably be caught. Schools can monitor their internal email and blogging systems and can track IP addresses. Later on in life, if you write something stupid on Twitter, you can lose your job – like the chap who joked about knocking over a cyclist and ended up being sacked by his stockbroker firm. You might even end up in trouble with the police, as in the case of the young man who made a really horrible 'joke' about the Glasgow bin lorry tragedy. Jokes are becoming increasingly dangerous in the world we live in, whether we like it or not.