Teaching Online Safety


It’s 3:20 p.m. on a Wednesday in late February, and students file out of Oak Bay Secondary in Victoria, B.C. Just moments after the final bell, they pile out in clusters, adjusting their backpacks and chatting to one another. In the middle of the pathway, a blond girl stands texting on a pink, jewel-encrusted iPhone. She ambles forward in a zigzag, tapping away, seemingly unaware of the bicyclist trying to squeeze past her.  After an unacknowledged “excuse me”, the boy veers his bike to the left, mumbling a curse as he passes her by. She doesn’t flinch, her eyes still glued to the screen while her feet move her forward, slowly, still weaving back and forth as she goes.

According to Peg Orcherton, chairperson of the Greater Victoria School District, this is a common sight amongst young people today. “I see students walk across the crosswalk without even looking, because they’re completely absorbed with their cellphones.” Orcherton worries that cellphones are not just distracting students from looking both ways, but from outside life in general. “They walk around in a little bubble of technology in which they are always connected, but really they are just isolating themselves. They are spending more and more time alone in front of a computer, instead of having actual conversations,” she says.

Research suggests the concern here is valid. Sherry Turkle, a professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains the concept of “presentation anxiety” in her book Alone Together, published in 2011. She developed this term to describe the pressure young people feel to maintain their online personas and to appear to be living exciting lives on their social  networking profiles. Turkle even had one teenager admit that he didn’t want to post on Facebook that his dog had died, because he didn’t want his life to seem depressing.

And it appears that the more social media used at one time—for example, sending a text while scrolling through Facebook pictures—the more anxiety people feel. This was demonstrated in a study done by Mark Becker, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University. Becker examined over 300 individuals who used technology to varying degrees, and his subjects reported feeling more social anxiety when they were using multiple media platforms simultaneously.

In a 2012 Mobile Mindset study published by the Huffington Post, people reported on their social networking usage. In the study, 73 per cent indicated that they feel anxious and stressed when unable to check their messages, and 54 per cent said they frequently check their smart phones while in bed.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the U.S. showed that one in seven children aged 12–17 had been sexually solicited online. With technology so central to the lives of young people today, it’s important they know how to use it safely.  In many Canadian schools, teaching online safety is not a focus in the curriculum. However, elsewhere schools are taking control of social media use. New Jersey, for example, has a carefully conceived focus on technology in schools. According to the official website of the State of New Jersey Department of Education, by the end of Grade 2, students will have been warned about the difficulty concerning ensuring personal safety online. In Grade 4, students are taught about cyber ethics, and in groups they create PowerPoint presentations on acceptable online behaviour.

As students progress through the New Jersey school system, technology becomes a more prominent focus each year. During Grade 8, students must model appropriate online behaviour for cyber safety and cyber security. This hands-on learning comes at an important time for the students, since most Grade 8 students are between 13 and 14 years old, and at 13 years old a person can become a licensed Facebook user.

In the Greater Victoria School District (GVSD), students are taught basic computer skills starting in Grade 1, but Orcherton says teachers focus on teaching what is already in the curriculum as opposed to comprehensive online tutelage, though parents and students sign an annual online agreement on computer usage. Orcherton would not confirm whether funding was an issue in adding online safety to the curriculum.

Schools in the GVSD, however, do call in experts or guest speakers to talk to students and faculty alike about how to be safe online. Darren Laur, staff sergeant of the Victoria Police Department, has visited many of the secondary schools in the district to give presentations about online safety.

In November 2012, Laur addressed over 300 students at Oak Bay High School. Talen Rimmer, the Grade 12 valedictorian, participated in the assembly. Rimmer said that, going in, “most of my friends thought it was going to be another boring lecture on why the Internet is bad, but it wasn’t like that at all.”

Once the students finished settling in, Laur turned on the projector without a formal introduction. The projector displayed the magnified Facebook profile of a 15-year-old girl named Jessica. Jessica had shoulder length brown hair, brown eyes, and over a hundred Facebook friends at that very school. Laur asked the students if any of them had recently added Jessica as a friend on Facebook. Bewildered, hands started going up. Rimmer’s friend had her hand raised, so he whispered to her, “Who’s Jessica?” She turned to him, thought about it, and shrugged. “I don’t actually know.”

Laur surveyed the room, judging the number of students who knew Jessica. He proceeded to ask how many friends had ever spoken to Jessica in real life. All of the hands went down. “Well, now you have,” Laur said. He then explained that “Jessica” was a fake persona he had constructed himself, just to see how many students would engage with her online.

This is a common practice for Laur, who creates a fake online persona before any school presentation. Each time he tailors the profile, changing the likes and personal information to suit the age or location of the students he is presenting to. When he gave presentations in Saskatchewan, the girl’s profile proclaimed that the Saskatchewan Rough Riders were her favourite team, but in B.C., she is all about the Canucks.

The purpose of the fake persona is to show students how vulnerable they would have been to a potential predator. Laur says he has presented to about 92 000 students and of those, he estimates he has “creeped” over 65 000 of their profiles.  That means that 65 000 students either accepted him as a friend or had privacy settings low enough that he could obtain access to their profiles.

Outside of his police work, Laur has created a private company called Personal Protections Systems Inc., dedicated to Internet and social media training. Since his 1993 startup, Laur has expanded the company’s offering of programs from four to 15, tailored to clients of different ages and professions. Apart from appearing as a guest speaker at schools, he is often called in to businesses and government offices as well.

Laur often opens by asking how many students have added his fake online persona, because he says it “gives the students a sense of how easy it was for their privacy to be invaded, and how many of their peers made the exact same mistake.” Laur encourages students to use caution with the types of photographs they upload, because once something is online people can easily save it to their hard drive.

Allen York, a counsellor at Oak Bay High, has noticed an increase in cyberbullying in the past few years, which he thinks is largely due to the anonymity that comes with posting online. York has dealt with many cyberbullying incidents, one involving a Grade 12 student who seriously considered dropping out of school because of the hurtful comments posted about her online.

Students are not unaware of these problems; Rimmer, who serves as a peer-counsellor at the school, feels that social networking can have a negative impact on self-esteem. “People only post the highlights of their life,” Rimmer says. “So then their peers think, ‘Wow everyone else has a way more interesting life than me,’ but that’s not the reality. The reality is that all you’re seeing is the best experiences of an entire year, none of the bad stuff.” Although Rimmer is on Facebook, he tries not to compare himself to others. He has completed two peer-counselling courses and often meets with fellow students to discuss their problems. “I’ve had some students tell me they posted something online they shouldn’t have, and it travelled through the entire school. What they said was the hardest was knowing they had no control over it.”

York worries about the types of pictures or status updates the students he counsels are posting online, particularly ones that show the students drinking heavily or smoking drugs. “What we are realizing is that as these people turn from child to adult they are all at different levels for understanding consequences to behaviour, and when you post or tweet, it is forever and it is everywhere,” he says.

This is an increasing concern for him because many of his Grade 9 students have started “sexting”—sending sexual messages or photos. “We have these young girls come in and they’re so surprised and upset, because they sent their boyfriend a picture and suddenly it’s travelled through the school.”

According to “The Dangers of Teen Sexting” published in Psychology Today, many teens are sexting, with 20–30 per cent having sent or received a sext. Of those who had received a sext, 25 per cent admitted they had sent it to someone else. But despite the chance their message could be forwarded, 20 per cent still admitted to having sent a sexual image of themselves over the phone. Those results came from a survey of 606 U.S. teens aged 14–18, the same age bracket that attends high school.

Oak Bay High is not the only Victoria school trying to keep its students safe online. Andy Olson, the president of the Technology Committee at Shawnigan Lake Private School, is trying to spread awareness to his students about privacy issues on social networking sites. The students, 95 per cent of whom live in residence, are treated to online safety seminars and the school brings in guest speakers such as Laur once or twice a year. Olson explained that when he asked the business managers of the school if a technology course could be introduced, they noted that in order for that to happen they would have to take out another course, like physical education or drama. “The school’s in a real dilemma,” Olson says, “because they have to decide if this is important enough to do that, or if this problem is something they can ignore.” Olson feels that because such a high percentage of students live on campus, the school is even more responsible for their online safety. “Some teachers think ‘oh well the parents should deal with it, they should teach them.’ But while these kids are with us we must act like their parents; we must fill that role.”

As a police officer, but also as a father himself, Laur believes parents need to take a more active role in surveying what their children are posting on social networking sites. He feels that many parents don’t understand how to use technology safely themselves, so they are giving their children the devices without any instruction beforehand. “As a parent would you toss your keys to the Lexus to your kid without driver training? No, it’d be stupid; they’re going to hurt themselves,” Laur says, “but we give them these digital keys with no training and just say, ‘Oh have fun.’ It’s such a mistake.” Laur suggests parents do research on the products beforehand and set parameters governing their child’s use of the device. For example, iPhones have “geo-tag” location trackers that can pinpoint exactly where someone took a photo. So if a girl takes a “selfie” at home and uploads it to Facebook, it is possible for people to determine where she lives. Although this tool can be turned off in the settings menu on an iPhone, many users are unaware it exists.  Parents can turn to sites like staysafeonline.org for tips on how to keep their children protected.

Doug Tolson, a father of three, agrees it is the responsibility of the parent to model appropriate online behaviour to their children. As the chair of the Parental Advisory Council at Margaret Jenkins Elementary School in Victoria, he is aware that children are starting to use technology at a very young age. Tolson does not consider himself to be naturally skilled with technology, but he stays up-to-date in order to protect his children. Tolson’s eldest daughter is nine, and although she was given an iPod Touch, it has been restricted to block Internet access. As for social networking sites, Tolson says, “I know they will want it, because there will be a pressure to get in when their friends do, but I am going to have access to it until I know they are safe. If they are on Facebook they will have to friend me, so I know what they are posting.” Tolson feels that parents need to learn more about social media in order to protect their children, but his views do not seem to be widely shared. There are many resources available to parents, but unfortunately not all of them are being used. Last year the Greater Victoria School District offered a seminar about online safety for all parents of students in the district. There are over 20 000 full-time students in the GVSD; only 200 parents showed up.

Another issue schools are facing is cyberbullying. In an attempt to address this problem, the B.C. Ministry of Education released the “Expect Respect and A Safe Education (ERASE)” bullying program in June 2012. This is a five-year program designed to help educators investigate cyberbullying claims, and it is being implemented in all 60 B.C. school districts. The ERASE website provides resources for parents including decoding Internet slang, signs that a child is being cyberbullied, and tips for talking to the school. The website allows victims an opportunity to report that they are being bullied. Victims may remain anonymous, but it is easier to investigate complaints when a name is given.

Orcherton says educators throughout the GVSD are now using the ERASE program. Once a complaint has been made, the principal of the school is alerted and an investigation proceeds from there. Orcherton says that of the eight cases the GVSD has dealt with, seven have been resolved. As for the unresolved matter, she says, “One of the problems with the anonymity is that we just didn’t have enough information to go on—we couldn’t tell if the claim was valid.”

In his work as a counsellor, York has cyberbullying cases popping up on a weekly basis. When he deals with cyberbullying, he focuses on making the perpetrator aware of their actions. “The person who issues the hurtful text or tweet doesn’t ever have to look the victim in the eyes; they don’t have to see how they hurt them. So I make them deal with that.” York often meets with the victim and perpetrator, and has the victim express how they were hurt by the other’s actions.

As a student, Rimmer has seen a shift in how people are bullied. “It’s not just your middle school teasing where someone writes ‘so-and-so is a bitch’ on a bathroom stall. Now that’s posted online, for everyone to see.”

Despite the warnings Laur gives during his presentations, he still loves technology and uses Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis. “Social networking is here to stay, and young people are leading the charge, and that’s not a bad thing. What’s important is just knowing how to stay safe.” It may not be clear whose responsibility it is to teach that information, but what is becoming increasingly apparent is that, whether they are taught at home by their parents or in the classroom by their teachers, young people need to know how to protect themselves online.