The internet is undeniably important for your students. Not only is it their go-to destination for information, but it’s also how they access key educational resources — which, notably, are increasingly delivered through the cloud.
Indeed, whether it be Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, or another vendor, cloud apps are now a staple part of the classroom experience. In fact, at least 60% of K-12 IT leaders say their school district is currently using a cloud-based system, while 83% believe cloud computing will eventually replace individual classroom technologies.
The point? Schools, staff members, and students are more online than ever before. With easy access to the internet, it’s essential to teach adolescents the ins and outs of digital citizenship. Otherwise, their privacy, health, and well-being could be at risk.
In this blog, we’ll discuss the importance of digital safety for students and what your school district can do to help them stay safe online.
Digital safety 101
Digital safety — also known as online safety, cyber safety, and internet safety — is the ability to understand and recognize online risks. More importantly, it’s about having the know-how to navigate and avoid cyber threats of all shapes and sizes.
Anyone with internet access is called a “digital citizen.” Broadly speaking, digital citizenship refers to the responsible use of connected devices and other internet-enabled technologies to engage with others. So, citizenship and safety go hand-in-hand, as a responsible digital citizen takes care to stay out of harm’s way when communicating online.
Why is online safety so important?
All it takes is one wrong move for a student to unknowingly allow a cyber threat to compromise their privacy — or worse, their physical well-being.
Whether on social media or through school-provided cloud apps, students may inadvertently share personal information pertaining to themselves or others. If a malicious person were to get ahold of such sensitive data, there’s no telling what could happen.
That’s why — at least in some cases — upholding student safety is a school district’s legal responsibility, even when it comes to the internet. In truth, there’s no crystal-clear answer as to whether schools can be held liable for failing to maintain digital safety. Usually, it depends on the circumstances.
That said, if a district has prior knowledge of a potential risk, staff members have a duty to prevent harm through reasonable measures. Failing to protect students from predictable online dangers is considered negligence, which could result in a lawsuit.
Why is it so difficult to keep students safe online?
Between students, staff members, teachers, and administrators, some school districts may have tens of thousands of active users. Effectively monitoring online activity is next to impossible, especially without the help of cloud security software.
To make matters worse, most districts don’t have the time or staff to comb through loads of data efficiently. Inevitably, a dangerous cyber threat or potential incident will slip through unchecked.
That’s why many K-12 IT departments are working with vendors like ManagedMethods to deploy automated cloud monitoring and web content filtering solutions. With a robust, feature-rich platform, you can greatly reduce the effort required to scan online activity for possible safety risks. Plus, some providers even help you tailor your policies to automatically detect signs of students in emotional distress — but more on that later.
Online safety and security risks
Committing to digital safety is only half the battle. If you want to secure your school district and mitigate online risks, you have to know what to look for.
Let’s review some of the most common types of threats your students may encounter online and where they might find them.
As defined by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the term “inappropriate content” refers to anything that’s too obscene, violent, or sexually graphic for a young person to consume. Broadly, it also includes any content that lacks “educational value,” such as an online game, social media, or streaming platform.
CIPA compliance requires school districts to prevent adolescents — including older students in high school — from accessing harmful material online. However, this proves exceptionally difficult. Over 55% of tweens have been exposed to violence on the internet, and nearly 60% have encountered sexually explicit words or images.
Toxic behavior comes in many forms, but when it comes to the internet, there’s no type more prominent than cyberbullying. Whether it be through spreading false rumors or posting embarrassing pictures on social media, cyberbullies verbally and emotionally harass their victims online.
Unfortunately, this brand of toxicity is increasingly common. According to the Pew Research Center, almost 60% of U.S. high school students have experienced victim online harassment, and nearly 90% think it’s a serious problem. Cyberbullying is so prevalent that teachers rank it the number one online safety issue in their classrooms.
Notably, these cyber threats can create safety risks of their own. It’s well-documented that cyberbullying has a very profound impact on student mental health. Researchers have linked it to the development of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, self-harm, and even suicidal ideation.
Worse yet, research from the Department of Homeland Security found that cyberbullying and school violence are closely related. Out of 67 school violence plots, almost a quarter of the cases were motivated by bullying.
Predators often use the internet to communicate, groom, and manipulate children. In fact, there are an estimated 500,000 online predators active each day.
Unfortunately, one of the most common ways predators take advantage of exploited children is through “sextortion.” This refers to when a malicious adult threatens to expose a young person’s personal information if not provided with sexual images or meet in person.
Lastly, there are many cybersecurity threats that target K-12 students. This is because they usually lack the digital literacy skills to identify a potential scam, making them vulnerable to exploitation.
Data security risks are numerous. At a high level, some of the most common include:
- Phishing attacks
- Man-in-the-middle attacks
- Account takeovers
For example, hackers may send students unsolicited emails pretending to be a trusted adult, such as an educator, staff member, or parent. In reality, they’re trying to trick the student into sharing personal information, such as their home address, password, or Social Security number. Phishing attacks like this are often the reason why so many children fall victim to identity theft and fraud.
Where are students at risk?
Now that you know what types of risks are threatening cyber safety, let’s discuss where you can find them. In truth, you might encounter online risks anywhere on the internet, but four common culprits stand out among the rest:
- Social networking sites: It’s hard to control what a young person sees on social media. They may come across inappropriate content, but they can just as easily encounter a malware link embedded in a post. Either way, social networking sites are a typical stomping ground for dangerous activity.
- Malicious websites: Aside from social media, some websites are designed to fool users into sharing personal data. For instance, a hacker might design a website to look like a legitimate resource, but is actually made specifically to harvest information. Other websites are merely a launching pad for malware injections, aiming to fool students into downloading malicious files.
- Cloud apps: Some apps are made to infect your domain with viruses. Like the example above, students may download applications believing them to be safe, such as an online game. Other apps are simply not built with great security and can be exploited by criminals.
- Email: As mentioned, hackers frequently use email as a cyber attack delivery system.
Internet safety tips for your school district
Not sure how to keep students safe online? Don’t worry. We’ve compiled a list of our best internet safety tips to help you get started.
1. Teach digital literacy
The next generation of students is being born into digital citizenship. However, just because they’re natively online doesn’t mean they’re inherently well-versed in digital literacy. As an educator, take steps to prepare your students for online risks.
It’s best to start early so that online safety practices become habitual. For young students, try gamifying the lesson plan. Google’s Be Internet Awesome website includes many resources to help make digital safety a fun, interactive experience. With the help of an online game, students can intuitively learn the basics of digital citizenship and internet safety.
2. Access expert resources
The good news is you don’t have to start from scratch. There are many online resources available to help kickstart your digital safety campaign.
Common Sense Education, for instance, provides dozens of free lesson plans for internet safety. Plus, they’re broken down by grade level, allowing you to tailor the learning experience from elementary to high school. This is especially important, as older students may not find as much value in a resource meant for little kids.
3. Set standards for appropriate online activity
It’s vital you make rules for how students can/should use the internet. It’s an essential resource for modern learning, but it’s also one that can be easily abused.
So, develop policies that clearly define what’s acceptable and what’s out of bounds. For example, you can require all students to implement strict privacy settings on their school accounts.
4. Foster a positive school climate
One of the best ways to avoid threats like cyberbullying is to prevent it from happening in the first place. How? Through a process called “social-emotional learning” (SEL).
In short, SEL helps young people develop self-awareness, self-control, and other interpersonal skills that are necessary for everyday life, especially in school. From problem-solving and impulse control to emotional intelligence, it’s a process that teaches kids how to cope with daily challenges more positively.
Research has found that SEL programs are highly effective at preventing toxic behavior. Because they help foster a culture of inclusion, schools that implement SEL normally experience lower bullying rates.
5. Encourage kids to come forward
If a student gets into trouble online, it’s best they alert a trusted adult right away. Whether it’s a malware incident, harassment, or a case of self-harm, the proper stakeholders have to know about it before they can act. Plus, the earlier a safety risk is mitigated, the less likely it is to leave a damaging impact.
Establish anonymous reporting systems your students can use to confidentially notify the right people about a problem they’re facing and/or witnessing. This goes a long way toward improving early-risk detection and intervention.
6. Create procedures for handling threats
What do you do when you find out about a potential cyber incident? If you can’t easily answer that question, chances are you’re not ready to act when push comes to shove.
That’s why it pays to have an incident response plan. It documents everything you and your stakeholders must do during an ongoing event. Check out our guide for more information on how to create one for your district.
7. Filter out inappropriate content
Because it’s mandated by CIPA, odds are you’re already aware of your content filtering obligations. But, if you’re not, here’s a helpful resource on everything you need to know.
In short, tools like our Content Filter allow you to block harmful content. This not only helps you maintain compliance, but also keeps students safe from dangerous material.
8. Implement security & safety software
An automated cloud security platform like Cloud Monitor is exactly what you need to uncover hidden risks before they spiral out of control. Our platform doubles as a safety monitoring tool, allowing you to automatically identify incidents and investigate them with speed and confidence.
Take self-harm, for instance. Cloud Monitor integrates right into Google Workspace and Microsoft 365, enabling you to scan your entire domain for keywords, phrases, and images that might indicate a student is hurting themselves. The same goes for other critical safety and security risks, including malware, phishing, suicidal ideation, bullying, violence, and more.
Further, our Content Filter platform doesn’t just provide you with affordable CIPA compliance. It’s an effective tool in your arsenal for self-harm, cyberbullying, explicit content, and cybersecurity protection needs.
Want to learn more about how ManagedMethods can help you enhance safety monitoring? Check out our upcoming webinar for more information.