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Empowering Students Online While Minimizing Risks

By Michelle Schira Hagerman
 | May 11, 2018
Internet Safety

Madelaine called me on a Tuesday. She needed advice for her fifth-grade project on internet safety. With her teacher’s help, she put me on speaker phone and asked my permission to record the conversation. Her questions were important. Among them, “How can kids stay safe online?” and “What advice do you have for teachers and parents about how to teach kids to be safe on the internet?”

Toward the end of our conversation, Madelaine’s teacher noted that it is difficult to know what resources to use or where to seek advice on internet safety. Her comments made me wonder whether other teachers feel this way, so I decided to use my post this week to share research that can help teachers and parents minimize risks while preparing children to practice smarter, savvier, and safer internet use.

How can kids stay safe on the internet?

During my conversation with Madelaine, I emphasized the importance of parents, teachers, and students talking openly about what safety means, the kinds of sites or activities that might pose a risk, how to avoid risks, and what to do if they find themselves in an upsetting situation. A 2011 landmark study published EU Kids Online found that 12% of students ages 9–16 had experienced situations online that made them feel bothered or uncomfortable. Interestingly, a much higher 55% agreed there is online content that would upset other students their age.

The study also found that, although more internet use predicted higher probability of exposure to online risks, students who used the internet for more diverse purposes at school and at home also seemed to acquire a more diverse set of digital skills that allowed them to take advantage of online learning opportunities. Another 2011 report, also published by EU Kids Online, found that digital skills may protect students from risks, even as they continue to be more active online. Therefore, teaching digital literacy skills such as how to block unwanted messages, delete browser history, and search for information online may mitigate risks.

What can teachers and parents do?

A recent article published by Journal of Communication found there is no single best approach. However, it seems that a constellation of parenting strategies called “enabling mediation strategies” may strike the best balance of empowering children to develop internet skills while minimizing online risks. The study found that when parents encourage their children to engage in online learning; participate in online activities with their children; explain online sales practices; identify which websites are appropriate or inappropriate; suggest ways to use the internet safely; assist with problem-solving; discuss strategies for independent problem-solving; and monitor use, they increase children’s self-efficacy in dealing with online risks.

Restrictive mediation is associated with fewer online risks but at the cost of opportunities to build critical digital skills. Interestingly, parents who report more advanced digital skills are more likely to use enabling mediation strategies, which suggests that one important way for schools to support children may be to support parents in their development of digital skills.

In a thank you letter, Madelaine wrote that she learned, “How we need to empower kids so that they have choices.” As teachers, we can create learning spaces that empower student choice and scaffold foundational online safety skills by creating opportunities to practice a range of skills and by inviting conversation about what to do when things go wrong.

Michelle Schira Hagerman is assistant professor of educational technology in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. Madelaine and her parents gave permission to use her real name in this blog post.


This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).


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