How to promote online student safety

Between the pandemic’s push to remote learning and the rise of cloud technology, school districts have accelerated their digital transformations at a rapid pace. In fact, by the end of 2019, over 90% of schools were already using cloud-based learning management systems, or at least planned to in the near future.

Today, it’s common for teachers to implement new, innovative solutions into the classroom experience. Whether they’re swapping out chalkboards for smartboards or notepads for tablets, digital-first districts are readily embracing the advantages of the 21st century — so far as their budgets allow it, anyhow.

Meanwhile, a parallel force is further contributing to this change. The students passing through the U.S. school system are not only steadfast adopters, but full-blown natives to digital technology. It’s only natural for schools to keep up with the times by enriching their hallways with more fun, engaging, and flexible learning solutions.

What does all this mean? Simply put, schools and students are more online than ever before.

Consequently, they’re also more exposed to the dangers that come with the territory. As we’ll discuss, a multitude of factors are challenging districts and posing a grave threat to student health and well-being.

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Why is student safety at risk online?

For K-12, the digital threat landscape is threefold: cyberattacks, mental health, and online predation.

Let’s unpack each one of these risks in more detail so that you can fully understand where your students may be in danger.

1. Cyberattacks

As far as cybersecurity is concerned, school districts are facing a constant threat.

Hackers have been unrelenting in recent years, targeting student data at a record pace. As a matter of fact, school cyberattacks tripled in 2019 alone. In 2021, nearly 1 in 3 districts had experienced a breach by year’s end.

According to the Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency (CISA), attacks tripled once more by the end of the pandemic. Without question, districts are dealing with an onslaught of hackers making attempts at stealing sensitive information.

Worse yet, cybercriminals are upping the ante with a host of sophisticated new attack vectors. SonicWall identified over 270,000 never-before-seen malware variants in just the first half of 2022 — a 45% year-over-year increase. For perspective, that’s the equivalent of 1,500 new malware strains daily.

Consequences of poor security

Data breaches can also put lives at risk. Identity theft aside, there’s no telling what’ll happen once a cybercriminal gets ahold of a student’s personal information, not to mention their home address, class schedule, and so on.

But are hackers really leaking private data online? Yes — and they’ll do it again. As reported by The Associated Press (AP), ransomware gangs are dumping files on the dark web after successful school hacks, usually when districts refuse to pay exorbitant ransoms.

These confidential documents are extremely sensitive, hence why hackers find them so valuable. According to the AP, they can be “raw, intimate, and graphic.” Many describe sexual assaults, psychiatric hospitalizations, abusive parents, truancy, and other deeply dark details.

Part of the issue is that schools are spending most of their IT budgets on learning tools, leaving little for security. According to our own research in collaboration with EdWeek, just 20% of cybersecurity budgets in 2021 were spent on securing cloud data. In a 2023 survey, the Consortium for School Networking found just 16% of districts had full-time network security staff, with nearly half devoting 2% or less of their IT budgets to security.

2. Mental health

Believe it or not, the second threat is perhaps even greater. Student mental health is an increasingly complex and fragile subject, especially with so many children accessing the internet on a regular — if not constant — basis. A variety of online factors are at play, each of them leaving a tangible impact on psychological well-being. These include:

  • Cyberbullying: Online harassment is the modern equivalent of traditional bullying. It can include name-calling and teasing, but bullies may also use digital tools and social media to do and distribute their dirty work.
  • Hate speech: According to a 2021 report, online hate speech increased 20% during the pandemic. It’s now exceedingly common for K-12 students to encounter hateful rhetoric online, which may be targeted toward their race, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
  • Inappropriate and violent content: When students access the internet at school they may come across harmful content, such as graphic violence and sexual imagery. Prolonged exposure to such material can potentially hinder their development or trigger their existing mental health conditions.
  • Digital self-harm: You might be familiar with the concept of self-harm, which is when an adolescent deliberately inflicts physical pain on themselves. In this case, the pain occurs digitally; a student may post a self-deprecating meme or publicly shame themselves online. Although a relatively new phenomenon, it’s often understood to be a potential indicator of severe depression.

These factors can have a negative and lasting effect on mental health. Without appropriate interventions, cases can even lead to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. The problem has grown so severe that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a national advisory in December 2021, in which he declared the issue a mental health crisis. Moreover, he plainly identified technology’s role in driving – or, at the very least, worsening — these long-term effects.

Here’s what he said exactly:

“When not deployed responsibly and safely, these tools can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve.”

3. Online predation

A third and equally scary threat to student safety is online predation. Minors may be interacting with strangers over the internet, some of whom could be child predators. They make contact via messaging apps, social media, and online forums and try to lure students into making physical contact.

The Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance Center reports that students may also fall victim to “sextortion,” possibly via ransomware. This occurs when someone threatens to distribute private material if not provided with sexual images. Obviously, for K-12 districts, that equates to child pornography. If students are using school-provided resources to communicate with predators — whether knowingly or not — you may be harboring illegal content inside your domain.

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Tips for protecting student safety online

Fortunately, there are many ways you can get ahead of the curve and safeguard your students from the looming threat landscape.

Here are some tips you can use to strengthen student safety:

  1. Teach digital literacy: Adolescents may be native to the internet, but they may not immediately be aware of its dangers. Help students recognize threats right away by teaching them about their many shapes and forms. From phishing scams to predators, provide a thorough and detailed overview so that everyone can understand what could be lurking around the corner.
  2. Promote honest and open communication: A positive school climate goes a long way toward combating toxicity. When students feel comfortable discussing their emotions, they may be less likely to bottle them up and allow negativity to fester inside their minds. This can help staff members intervene early before risks spiral out of control.
  3. Implement a reporting policy: Kids are sometimes scared to talk about bullying, whether it happens online or in person. One way to encourage them to come forward is to establish and promote an anonymous reporting mechanism. This minimizes any fear of retribution that would otherwise dissuade them from opening up.

3 ways technology can uplift student safety

Of course, digital tools can still be a force for good. With the right technologies at your side, you can even counteract threat vectors and manage online risks.

Here are three solutions you can use to proactively protect your students:

  1. Content filtering: Cloud-based content filters block access to inappropriate content. They can also protect users from malicious websites, thereby keeping hackers at bay. Plus, you can prevent students from accessing potential distractions such as social media or online gaming sites.
  2. Data loss prevention (DLP): A DLP platform allows you to establish policies for how users can behave online. It automatically enforces rules and can rapidly detect potential threats, incidents, and suspicious behaviors may be evidence of an attempted breach.
  3. Cloud monitoring: It’s essential that school districts intervene as early as possible when student safety is at risk. Cloud monitoring strengthens visibility, enabling you to spot signs of bullying, harassment, abuse, or suicidal ideation at a moment’s notice.

Best of all, you don’t have to look far and wide to find these solutions individually. At ManagedMethods, we offer all of these capabilities and more. Better yet, our Cloud Monitor and Content Filter platforms are made specifically for K-12 school districts.

Learn more about how ManagedMethods can help you create a safe learning environment and check out our back-to-school technology guide today.

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