By Jo Budden

02 February 2016 - 08:06

'Teenagers often have a lot to learn when it comes to staying safe online.'
'Teenagers often have a lot to learn when it comes to staying safe online.' Photo ©


We often think of teenagers as being tech-savvy, but how much do they know about staying safe online? To mark Safer Internet Day on 9 February 2016, Jo Budden, editor of our LearnEnglish Teens website, takes a look at the issues and offers some practical tips.

Many people think teenagers today are light-years ahead of most adults when it comes to using technology. Young people use their phones and tablets so quickly and naturally that it’s easy to believe they know all there is to know about the online world. However, teenagers often have a lot to learn when it comes to staying safe online and knowing what to do if problems arise.

A recent survey from the National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) revealed that one in four young people in the UK has seen something upsetting on a social networking site. Of these children, 58 per cent were upset by someone they only knew online. Only 22 per cent of the children who had a negative online experience spoke to someone about their problem.

These statistics highlight two important points. The first is that we must do more to encourage young people to talk about their experiences online if we are to keep them safe. The second is that a 'friend' means different things to different people in different contexts – online, the word takes on a whole new meaning. Many young people have ‘friends’ in their online networks that they've never met: these may be friends of friends or people who share a similar interest such as online gaming. But the fact is, in many cases, they don’t really know who their ‘friends’ actually are. This can leave them in a very vulnerable position.

So whose job is it to help guide teenagers through the digital environment that has been a part of their lives since they were born? Experts in the area suggest that adults need to play an active part. Taking a back-seat and assuming that young people instinctively know how to behave online can be very dangerous. Instead, parents, teachers and youth workers should bring up the topic of online safety with young people and take the lead in encouraging safe online behaviour.

Creating a contract between parents and children

Designers of a recently launched app called Our Pact have recognised that parents often need a helping hand with guiding their children towards safe online behaviour. The concept is simple: parents talk to their children about how they spend their online time and then sign a contract with them on the use of their mobile devices. The app enables parents to control the amount of time their children can access Wi-Fi and what apps they can use. The idea is to encourage a fluid dialogue between parents and children about their online use.

So far, the early adopters that I've read about and talked to seem happy with how it's working. To me, the recent launch of this app is a sign that parents are looking to tackle the topic with their children head-on.

Tips for helping learners stay safe online

As well as parents, teachers can also play a vital role in ensuring that teenagers get the most out of the internet. This involves introducing all sorts of digital literacy skills such as how to search for information effectively, and how to assess the reliability of different sources.

It's also useful to have some general principles or guidelines for learners when using the internet, such as those we have developed on LearnEnglish Teens.

  • Be nice to people online
  • Take care with what you share
  • Keep personal information private
  • Check your privacy settings
  • Know how to report posts
  • Keep your passwords safe
  • Never meet anyone in person you’ve only met online
  • If you see anything online that you don’t like or you find upsetting, tell someone you trust

Activities and resources for encouraging online safety

These guidelines appear in a reading activitya listening activity and a video, all of which have been designed for teenagers with lower levels of English. For those at higher levels, there’s a longer reading text about online safety in the UK, a quiz which asks learners if they are good digital citizens, and a reading activity about digital footprints to encourage learners to take care with what they share.

Songs are a great way to capture young people’s attention. To celebrate last year’s Safer Internet Day, GMC Beats rap workshops worked with Webwise Ireland to create a brilliant song full of strong, online safety messages. LearnEnglish Teens has created online support materials and worksheets so that learners of English can also enjoy this song, which gives online safety advice and reminds us that the internet is an amazing tool for learning and having fun.

The Premier Skills English website has some online material in a comic format that brings some of the more serious issues of online safety to light in a really original way. The comics deal with the issues of meeting people in real life that you’ve only met online, and also taking care with what you share online.

However you choose to talk about online safety, it’s never too early to start. LearnEnglish Kids is the British Council’s learner website for 5- to 12-year-olds, and there are some online safety activities and a quiz to introduce clear online safety messages to younger children. There’s also advice and tips for parents. Extra support for teachers is provided on the TeachingEnglish website. This lesson plan gives structure and guidance on how teachers could take the topic into their classrooms.

Any day is a good day for talking about online safety with the young people you live with or work with, so if you’re reading this after 9 February 2016, don’t wait for next year ... talk about it today.

Find out about the British Council’s commitment to child protection and see what’s going on for Safer Internet Day using the hashtags #SID2016 and #SafeOnlineSpace.

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