The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Jamie Bartlett

See no evil, fear no evil? Let pupils face dangers online!

I spent a year of my life immersed in the internet's darkest corners. Young people will do the same, and we need to let them learn from their mistakes.

When it comes to teaching about the internet and media literacy, there are few words I dislike more than ‘safeguarding’.

Not because the aspiration is wrong. Safeguarding, which means ‘action that is taken to promote the welfare of children and protect them from harm’, is hardly disagreeable. Given all the myriad risks that young people face online – from propaganda to self-harm forums and much more – some form of safeguarding is clearly necessary.

But the word tends to an approach, perhaps even a mindset, which is risk averse. It’s about preventing and protecting children from risks of life online. An understandable tendency but not necessarily the right one. 

Dark corners 

We learn most when we make mistakes, and whatever safeguarding is put in place, kids will inevitably find their way around it. I prefer a mindset and approach which introduces young people to risks of life online, allows them to make mistakes and teaches them how to deal with that.

I spent a year immersed in some of the internet’s most shocking corners for my book The Dark Net. For a year my life was nothing but web-camming sites, internet trolls, neo-Nazi forums, drug markets, and pro-anorexia communities.

Whenever I go to schools to talk about this I usually find a chasm between what the kids know and what the teachers know. The latter are often surprised to learn how these online communities work, but the former know all about them already.

I recently gave a talk about this, and many adults told me they’d found the content eye-opening and shocking. One teenager came up to me with a quite different response: ‘That was pretty tame,’ she said, ‘I wish you'd gone into more detail, so they could have heard what it’s really like’. 

Why wouldn’t they know all of this? If I were a teenager again, in this ever-connected world, I would know all about them too.

In fact, they’d be my go-to places. I would:

  • set up a friendly Facebook profile to trick my parents, and a second, real, one, that they didn’t know about
  • have anonymous Twitter accounts and the Tor browser
  • try to work out a way around school censorship.

The most realistic approach to safeguarding is to recognise this, and take it from there.

From apps to viruses; there's a lot to consider when safeguarding pupils' online. This downloadable A-Z poster will help you recognise those essential terms. 

Take the plunge

In the classroom, we must help young people navigate the risks they will inevitably take. Take the issue of web-camming or sexting their friends. The common approach is to explain why it’s wrong and that they shouldn’t do it. That’s fine, but some people will still do it, no matter how often you tell them not to.  

A smarter approach is to say: of course it’s wrong. But if you do it, here’s what can happen to your picture. And if you are still going to do it, then make sure you don’t include your face: since you can then deny it’s you.

This sort of approach also requires that teachers and parents hold their breath and explore some of the risky websites the young people are visiting.

I know from experience that it’s far easier to talk about pro-anorexia sites if you’ve spent time on them, and understand how they really work. Be careful, obviously - but, assuming you’re a well-adjusted adult, you’ll get used to it very quickly.

You'll probably find it’s not quite as bad as you’d imagined, and certainly very different.

Before they can shed any light, should teachers and parents first explore the dark web themselves? Comment below!

To err is human

I understand the challenge. In my experience many teachers agree with this approach in principle, but know that the application is far more difficult.

Introducing young people to some of the dangerous parts of the internet could, for some, be seen as encouraging it. Imagine the headlines! I’m afraid there’s no way around that problem.

It’s important that people make mistakes. I made lots of them when I was young: but they weren’t all saved somewhere online forever. Young people have got to be allowed to err and learn from it.

Safeguarding should be mainly about ensuring that mistakes aren’t life destroying or devastating, not trying in vain to prevent them altogether. 

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