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Children’s Online Activity and Internet Safety

Children’s Online Activity and Internet Safety

The results of our 2020 survey show that teachers are dealing with the consequences of unrestricted internet access.


online internet safety


In February 2020, we asked primary school teachers of nine- to eleven-year-olds (Year 5 and Year 6) to tell us about their pupils' online activity.


We wanted to know how the amount of time spent online, and the sorts of things children are doing online, are affecting teaching, learning and children's wellbeing. Most schools include learning about internet safety in their curriculum, but we wanted to find out how effective it was. What are the issues which affect children's online safety in 2020? Are we adequately preparing them for the risks and consequences of their online interactions?


Over three hundred teachers responded. The data was enlightening. In parts, it was worrying – an indicator that there is a significant lack of oversight of young children's online activity. In parts though, it was reassuring – we learnt that children are resilient and, on the whole, aware of the sorts of content they should avoid. The following is a summary of the main findings of the survey.


The PlanBee Children's Online Activity and Internet Safety 2020 Survey


Alarming numbers of pupils are coming to school tired due to late nights online.


Of all the questions we asked, the responses to this one were the most surprising. Worryingly high numbers of Year 5 and Year 6 pupils (aged nine to eleven) are regularly coming to school tired due to late nights online. These included children who were up late watching, reading or listening to content and those who were playing games.


In two-thirds of classrooms, at least five children are regularly tired due to late nights online.



Of the 300+ teachers we asked, more than 50 of them told us they regularly have at least ten children in their class who are frequently tired due to spending time online late at night. This has worrying implications for children's learning and health.


Most children have social media accounts, despite not being old enough to sign up.


Use of social media sites is widespread among nine- to eleven-year-olds. Teachers reported that pupils in their classes had Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok accounts, despite having to be 13 or above to sign up (according to the terms of service of these platforms).



Three-quarters of teachers reported that children in their classes had YouTube accounts (YouTube only allows children 13 or above to sign up). However, this figure may not be totally accurate, as YouTube is the only platform mentioned in our survey that has publicly-available content which can be accessed without an account. Some pupils may be using YouTube without signing in.


TikTok, the video-sharing app, was equally popular. Three-quarters of teachers reported that children in their class were using the platform, which has received criticism due to its lack of moderation of inappropriate content and its use of user's videos in its adverts without permission. Worryingly, too, there are fears that TikTok users' data may be being shared with the Chinese government. A Chinese company makes the app. Consequently, it may be obliged to share its data with the Chinese Communist Party, as all Chinese companies are.


WhatsApp's terms of service state that users must be 16 and above, so the high levels of use among nine- to eleven-year-olds is surprising. Interactions between users are unmoderated, as WhatsApp conversations are secure and encrypted.


A majority of teachers also reported that pupils had accounts for online gaming services, too. Unlike the other social media platforms in our survey, the three major gaming apps allow parents to create 'sub-accounts' for children, with controls to manage and restrict content.


Parents do not know what their children are doing online.


We asked upper KS2 teachers (of nine- to eleven-year-olds) how many parents, in their estimation, actively monitored and managed their children's online activity. 


Less than half of parents of nine- to eleven-year-olds are actively monitoring their children's online activity.



Most parents, it seems, are not aware of what their children are doing online. The online activity of a majority of nine- to eleven-year-olds is going unmonitored and unrestricted. What is less clear is how teachers felt able to draw these conclusions. This is something about which we would like to have learnt more.


We suspect, as former teachers ourselves, that teachers were able to make a reasonable estimate of parental monitoring because of what their pupils tell them – Key Stage 2 children are always quite happy to share what they get up to when their parents aren't looking!


Children have a good understanding of what is 'inappropriate' online content.


Some good news came out of our survey: children have a clear idea of what sort of content is, and is not, appropriate for themselves.


More than half of pupils aged nine to eleven understand what is meant by 'inappropriate' online content.



Again, we would like to know more about how teachers felt able to draw these conclusions. Anecdotal evidence from Ofcom's recent children's media use report indicated that while children were aware that adults considered certain types of content 'inappropriate', they had little idea what that meant.


While this may be true of other age groups in the Ofcom study, our findings indicate that children aged nine to eleven have a good understanding of what they should and should not be doing online.


Teachers are dealing with the consequences of unrestricted and unmonitored internet access.


Most teachers are regularly dealing with instances of children being harmed online, either through viewing harmful content or being bullied online.


Two-thirds of teachers have had to deal with pupil's being distressed by content they have viewed online.



This statistic is particularly frustrating, as restricting access to harmful content is something that most parents can do something about. Limiting the use of online devices to communal areas of the home, and restricting access through parental controls on devices, are easy to do and—in our view—something that all parents should be doing to protect their younger children.


While it is inevitable that children will, at some point, encounter distressing content online, more can be done to reduce instances of this. Schools do an excellent job of preparing children for this and with supporting children who do encounter distressing content. What our survey didn't tell us was how often teachers are dealing with issues like these. This is something we would have liked to have learnt more about, too.


Eight out of ten teachers have dealt with cyberbullying in their class.



This figure is unsurprising given dealing with all forms of bullying is unavoidable for teachers; it's just part of the job. What makes it challenging to tackle is the fact it is much less visible than bullying that occurs face-to-face, offline.


Our survey didn't tell us how often teachers are dealing with cyberbullying. There have been several studies done to determine how widespread cyberbullying is, with widely varying results. The Anti-Bullying Alliance has made a good comparison of these studies.


Children's learning is being affected by 'fake news' and false information online.


Two-thirds of teachers have had to deal with pupils who have encountered misleading information online. 



Addressing children's misconceptions is a fundamental part of being a teacher; however, the misconceptions that are arising from viewing misleading online content are likely to be very different to the more run-of-the-mill misunderstandings to do with maths or writing, for example.


Anyone who regularly uses social media will be all too aware that lies about politics and public figures, pseudoscience about vaccinations and dieting, and wild conspiracy theories are rife on these platforms.


Teachers have always done a good job teaching children to recognise bias and false information. Still, the challenge is greater now, as children may find that misleading information is being shared online by family members, friends and 'influencers' they admire. Speaking of influencers…


Children are looking up to a new wave of public figures: influencers.


'Influencers' are high-profile figures on social media (e.g. YouTube and Instagram) who have the potential to 'influence' their followers. They can make a lot of money through sponsorships – companies are keen to work with influencers and sell products or services to their followers.


Increasingly, children look up to online celebrities rather than the traditional stars of sport and screen who previous generations have admired. Influencers have likely gained massive followings of young people due to their embracing of social media, their frequent uploads of new content, their (perceived) 'accessibility' and their focus on specific, niche interests that children enjoy, too.


A quarter of teachers reported that at least half of their pupils had cited influencers as sources of inspiration.



Looking to influencers as sources of inspiration may not necessarily be a bad thing. Many YouTubers and Instagrammers produce high-quality, child-friendly content, and are good role models. However, many YouTubers cynically tailor their content to gain views (and therefore advertising royalties) by young people, producing sexually provocative or scary/violent content that pushes the boundaries of what is permissible on these platforms. YouTuber Jake Paul is a powerful example of this: he has gained millions of child subscribers, partly by producing content which does not break YouTube's rules but is certainly not appropriate for his young audience.


Although inspired by them, most children do not aspire to be influencers themselves.



Ofcom found, in their study, that many children did not want to become famous or get 'clout' through likes and follows online. Most preferred to keep their social profiles private, and found blatant efforts to gain clout on social media 'cringey'.


Our survey reflects this. While some children clearly had stated to their teachers that they would like to be influencers, most did not. We did not ask what sort of aspirations children had, other than this. Traditionally aspirational careers in sport, education, science and medicine still seem to be popular among primary-aged children.


Are you looking for internet safety resources? Check out these Internet Safety Posters, or this Key Stage 1 e-safety lesson planning pack.


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