Why is online safety an issue for schools?

Social media, or social networking, sites are abundant, used by young people and adults alike.

School staff need to be aware of online safety issues, both in relation to themselves and pupils. For instance, school staff need to be aware of their online reputation, and may be victims of cyberbullying perpetrated within the school community. Similarly, pupils can be victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying, or be involved in ‘sexting’ incidents. School employers have a legal requirement to protect their workers from abuse and bullying online, in the same way as face to face bullying. Schools are also required to teach children and young people about online safety issues.

Download NEU social media model policy and see our checklist.

TikTok videos targeting teachers and support staff

Many schools have reported concerns around their pupils making explicit, offensive and harmful videos on social media, particularly on TikTok. The videos are either making reference to the school or individual teachers and other staff themselves through a variety of online accounts. Some of the content that has been shared includes pictures of staff being pulled from their organisation’s website and being altered to include pornographic imagery, offensive wording or harmful accusations relating to conduct or personality.  In response to this, many teachers have been deeply affected, with some taking time off to deal with stress.

As well as this, school’s trademarked logos and other pieces of branding have been used, highlighting concern over how it will affect their schools’ reputation online.

TikTok is currently working to resolve the issue and remove content; and is cooperating fully with requests to take offensive material down. 

Advice From Professionals Online Safety Helpline (POSH)

Any school reporting content on TikTok should report it through the Professionals Online Safety Helpline. To understand where POSH can assist you in escalating content, please download this advice.

What other types of social networks are there?

Some commonly used social media sites are listed below. Most sites have a minimum age for users to be eligible to use the service, however, evidence shows that children younger than these limits are accessing social media sites, often because the sites do not ask for confirmation of age at sign up.

Facebook (minimum age 13) - lets users create their own profiles, share status updates, pictures, videos and chat with other users, and also has a messenger app.

Instagram (minimum age 13) - allows users to alter photos, upload them to Instagram and share them to other social networking sites. Photos can be sent directly to specific users. A video feature is also available

Snapchat (minimum age 13) - a photo-sharing app where users can send photos or videos to their friends. These will display on screen for up to ten seconds before being deleted, although it is possible to take screenshots of messages and download other apps designed to capture and save Snapchat content

Twitter (minimum age 13) - a social network that lets users send and read “tweets” messages limited to 280 characters.

Tumblr (minimum age 16) - a social networking site where users can post blogs and follow other people’s blogs. Some of the content on this site contains sexual or pornographic images.

Whatsapp (minimum age 16) - free-of-charge, real-time messaging. Users can share images and videos, take part in ‘group chats’ and share locations. As it’s based on knowing the user’s phone number, you can only message users if you already know their telephone number.

YouTube (minimum age 13) – allows users to watch, create and comment on videos.

Ask.Fm (minimum age 13) - users can ask other users questions, with the option of anonymity. Ask.fm’s reputation as a platform for cyberbullying has been highlighted in the media

The Safer Internet Centre and the NSPCC Net Aware websites have guides on these and other types of social media, including details of terms and conditions of usage and safety tools.

What are the potential uses and misuses of social media in a school setting?

Using the internet appropriately with children and young people can be a useful and rewarding resource for teachers and school staff. Many young people use social media safely and suitably. However, the proliferation of social media does present a number of issues that have the potential to affect school staff and pupils negatively.

It is important for teachers and school staff to be aware of their online reputation and recognise that their online activity can be seen by others on social media. This potentially includes wider groups of people than those befriended on social media – and therefore, it is vital that school staff who use social media apply strong privacy settings. Advice for school staff on staying safe online is detailed below in the next section.

Cyberbullying is the use of technologies, such as social networking, to deliberately and repeatedly upset someone else. School staff are known to have been victims of cyberbullying, and in fact, the DfE says that 21% of teachers have reported having derogatory comments posted about them on social media by parents and/or pupils. Pupils can be victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying. Schools should have a policy on cyberbullying and make it clear to all members of the school community that like face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying will not be tolerated. Comprehensive NEU advice on cyberbullying is available here.

‘Sexting’ is another issue that may need to be addressed at school level. It is a broad term, but for the purposes of NEU guidance to schools, it is used to refer to ‘images or videos generated by children under the age of 18, or of children under the age of 18 that are of a sexual nature, or are indecent’. Sometimes such behaviour can be part of a romantic relationship between young people – however, it can also be coercive and/or exploitative, and images can be used to bully and blackmail children and young people. Comprehensive NEU guidance on sexting is available here.

How can I protect myself and my reputation online?

The nature of teaching and working in education means that school staff need to be particularly aware of their online reputation, including information posted about them by others. While the NEU does not advise members against using social media for personal use, it does advise members to think carefully about the way they use these technologies. There have been cases of school employees being subject to disciplinary action because of things that have been posted online. Below is NEU advice for school staff on how to stay safe online and when using technology and social media:

  • Review your privacy settings, and ensure that they are sufficiently robust. Sites such as Facebook allow you to view your page as different groups of people e.g. friends, non-friends.
  • Privacy tools that are available on many social media sites include: customising who can see your posts; controlling who can contact you and make friend requests; keeping your location private and approving tags before they are published.
  • You may wish to consider using an alternative name on sites like Facebook to make it harder for pupils to find you, for example, some members use their partners surname on-line but their own surname in school.
  • Discuss expectations around tagging posts with friends and family. For instance, you may prefer to not be tagged in any posts on social media.  
  • Regularly search your name in search engines and social media sites to check what information there is on the internet about you. It is standard practice for employers to search prospective employees online so search yourself online when applying for any posts.  When searching, check variations of your name, and even nicknames.
  • If offensive or hurtful information is posted about you online, for instance by a pupil or parent, never retaliate to the message. There have been cases where school staff have been disciplined by their employer for responding to posts online, even where they were not the instigator. Instead, make copies of all offensive content, including screenshots and URLs, and take them to your employer. Your employer must take action on cyberbullying in the same way as it would face-to-face bullying. 
  • If offensive material has been posted about you online, you can use the reporting procedures of the site involved to get the material taken down. More information on how to do this is available in the NEU self-help briefing on cyberbullying.
  • Make sure you have familiarised yourself with your employer’s IT acceptable use policy and abide by the requirements of this policy. For instance, if you access personal email and social media accounts when connected to the employer’s wi-fi network, these may be subject to the school’s internet policy which is likely to include monitoring and surveillance.
  • Only use work equipment and email for work uses – and do not let anyone else, including colleagues and family members use them.
  • Ensure all of your devices, including work ones are password protected. Do not give your password to anyone else and do not leave your screen unlocked if you move away from the device.
  • Do not befriend any current pupils on social media – it is likely to be in breach of your employer’s policies. If pupils are consistently attempting to ‘friend’ you on social media – report this to your employer.
  • While former pupils may not be covered by your employer’s policy, NEU advice is to very carefully consider the implications of befriending former pupils, especially as they may have friends, siblings or connections to current pupils. Similarly, there are potential implications of befriending parents of pupils on social media – even if they are also a colleague.  Therefore, it is recommended that NEU members do not friend former pupils or parents on social media. If you do decide to do this, let your employer know.
  • Keep your personal phone number private and do not share with pupils or parents. If it is necessary to use a mobile phone to contact parents, e.g. during a school trip, your employer must provide one.
  • Be aware that your employer will be able to check your usage and data, including location history on any device they provide you for work purposes. (Details of how to turn off location settings on IPhone is available in the NEU health and safety briefing on online safety).
  • When using social media, before posting or commenting on items, consider whether you would be happy for your employer, colleagues, pupils and parents to see it. If you wouldn’t want them to, then don’t post it online.
  • Never criticise your school, employer, pupils or parents online.

Childnet has produced a social media guide for teachers and support staff. The UK Safer Internet Centre runs an online safety helpline for professionals, and it can provide advice to school staff with queries or concerns about all sorts of online safety issues. It can be contacted on 0344 381 4772 or helpline@saferinternet.org.uk.

What can I expect from my employer?

Your employer should have policies addressing various online safety issues including: IT acceptable usage (for staff and pupils), cyberbullying, sexting and appropriate use of social media. They should be communicated to all staff, pupils and parents, and refer to other policies, such as pupil behaviour and safeguarding, where relevant. The policies should set out clear reporting procedures and who in the school is the lead on online safety (i.e. a member of SMT). The policy should also list the potential sanctions that can be employed if there a breach of the policy, including for pupils, parents and staff.

Where a member of staff is the victim of cyberbullying, the NEU expects the school to respond as thoroughly as it would to any other types of bullying, including taking steps to support the member of staff to get the offensive material taken off the internet. NEU self-help guidance on cyberbullying in schools is available here.

NEU guidance on responding to sexting incidents is available here. Where a sexting incident has occurred, staff may have wider safeguarding concerns about the pupil/s involved, and NEU guidance on safeguarding is here.

The NEU has a model policy, which can be used in discussions with schools and employers by NEU reps and local officers where there is not currently a policy in place. 

What support should schools provide pupils in relation to online safety?

The DfE statutory guidance for schools and colleges ‘keeping children safe in education’ states that  ‘governing bodies and proprietors should be doing all that they reasonably can to limit children’s exposure to…risks from the school’s or college’s IT system’. This includes ensuring that the school/college has appropriate filters and monitoring systems in place. The Safer Internet Centre has guidance for schools on appropriate filtering and monitoring. The DfE advises that there should be a whole school approach to online safety and that online safety training for staff is integrated, aligned and considered as part of the overarching safeguarding approach. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) has produced a framework to support schools in teaching pupils about online and digital issues.

The Government has also stated that the reforms to Relationships Education (primary schools) and Relationships and Sex Education (secondary schools), which include making the subjects mandatory, will include a key focus on ‘healthy relationships and safety online, including use of social media, cyberbullying and sexting’.

Tips for trainees/new teachers

Tips for trainee members on using social media responsibly, including student contact on social media and privacy. 

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have changed how we communicate, but it’s important to remember that careers have been wrecked over an ill-judged post on social media. Follow these tips and you won’t go too far wrong.

  1. Check and act in accordance with the IT policy. Even if you do not like the restrictions it may place around social media use, act in accordance with your school’s (and later on, your employer’s) IT policy, and make sure you keep up to date with any changes to it.
  2. Never have pupils, parents of pupils or ex-pupils as friends on Facebook and other sites. Keep your personal and professional life separate. If you don’t, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to allegations of inappropriate contact, as well as possible complaints about posts relating to your personal life. You are entitled to a private life, but if you make your private life public, there could be consequences.
  3. Have the strongest privacy settings possible – but be aware ‘friends’ may not have the same level of privacy. Comments, photos and videos can quickly become public. We advise you never to include your place of work as part of any social media profile.
  4. Be aware of who your ‘friends’ are. Casual acquaintances could add a photo or comment to your Facebook page that could land you in trouble. Colleagues who are friends may take offence at something you posted, take a screenshot and pass it to management. If you want to use Facebook for social purposes, only add trusted friends – if you are not friends with a colleague in real life, why be a friend on Facebook?
  5. Think about your username and email address. Sites like Twitter and Instagram will often ask you for a username and most email accounts allow you to choose your email address, while your actual name is often still visible. Think about this carefully – does your username/email address reveal something quite personal, is it embarrassing or could it be deemed offensive?
  6. If in doubt, don’t post it. You hold a professional position within the community, and few careers have the same level of interaction with children and young people. Therefore, your behaviour and online presence is going to be the subject of greater scrutiny. Always think carefully about what you are posting, whether a photo or text – and if in doubt, don’t post it.

What should I do next?

If further advice is needed, contact your NEU workplace rep in the first instance.  If there is no NEU rep in your workplace, or the peripatetic nature of your employment makes contact with a workplace rep difficult, contact the NEU AdviceLine, or the Wales or N.I. offices instead.  Their details may be found at https://neu.org.uk/contact-us.  

Further Information

Further information can be found on the following:

Childnet International - Advice for professionals on online safety issues affecting young people.

UK safer internet centre

Childnet International

DfE – Keeping children safe in education