Teaching online safety, media literacy and digital citizenship in primary and secondary schools

Providing children and young people with a broad and deep education in online safety, media literacy and digital citizenship is crucial for enabling and empowering them to develop and thrive in an ever-increasingly connected world. Many of the digital skills, attitudes and behaviours that children develop will also carry through to their adult lives, so supporting them to become responsible digital citizens is very important.

Visual of a teacher and a student

This module will explore your role as an educator and what you need to consider in order to teach these important digital skills.

Why is it important to teach these topics?

Depending on your role, you may have a specialism or a responsibility to teach certain subjects or areas of the curriculum – for example, Maths teacher, History teacher, and so on. As such, you may be wondering what role you play in teaching online safety or digital citizenship, especially if it appears far removed from your specialist subject.

However, regardless of your role, every educator can support children and young people to learn about staying safe online, becoming media literate and how online experiences can shape views, attitudes and behaviours.

Here are a few things to consider in your role as an educator and how it relates to supporting learners in understanding their digital lives:

  • You are a role model – As someone who works with children or young people, you are an adult who they will frequently look to for guidance and direction – not just in academia but with regard to how a person might think and behave. Therefore, you have an opportunity to positively influence your learners when it comes to using technology and the internet positively and safely. You are also a key source of support for any learner who might be worried about something they have experienced online.
  • Modelling best practice – Alongside being a role model, you can also model positive and responsible use of technology in your daily teaching. Demonstrating to learners how you safely navigate online spaces (such as using a search engine to find accurate information, navigating around online advertising, and showing good cybersecurity practice) can provide consistent positive reinforcement of safe and positive digital behaviours.
  • Challenging views and opinions – Particularly when working with older learners, concepts and online behaviours cannot easily be labelled as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; the context of an online situation can greatly affect the choices a young person might make. Schools and academic settings are often places where ideas and opinions can be safely and positively examined and challenged, which can help address misconceptions and reinforce positive thinking. Don’t forget – you also hold your own views and opinions about digital life. Working with your learners can also provide opportunities for you to question and reflect upon your own attitudes!

Does my school have to teach these topics?

Different countries have different approaches in place with regard to online safety, media literacy and digital citizenship. For some countries, their Ministry of Education may direct schools to teach some or all of these topics as part of the planned curriculum. For other countries, there may not be any statutory requirement to teach these areas.

Within countries, there may also be regional variance as to what schools are required or encouraged to teach with regard to online safety, digital citizenship and media literacy. In areas where no statutory requirements exist, some schools may have voluntarily introduced teaching in these areas, having recognised the importance to their learners.

It is important to ensure you are aware of your school’s approach to teaching online safety, media literacy and/or digital citizenship. You should make yourself familiar with any policies, curriculum plans and procedures related to teaching these areas. This includes any guidance or direction issued by a regional education authority or national Ministry of Education.

Regardless of whether these subjects are compulsory in your country, don’t forget that the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres offer a wealth of information, advice, resources and support. You can find details of what is available in your country.

What should I consider as a Primary teacher?

As an educator working with young children, you play an important role in introducing concepts around online safety, media literacy and digital citizenship. You also have the opportunity to positively shape the attitudes and behaviours of young learners towards their digital lives.

Here are some key things to consider if you work with children aged 3-11:

  • Positive approach – The way in which you teach and discuss these topics can have a huge impact on how children begin to recognise and understand risks through technology, how they develop critical reasoning skills, and how they learn how to build and manage positive online interactions and relationships. A positive approach to discussing these and other issues is key. It can be tempting to want to sternly warn or scare children about risks they may encounter online in the hopes that this will help them avoid those risks. However, a positive approach to discussing and managing online experiences is always more effective in keeping children engaged with the learning, as well as equipping them with applicable knowledge and skills to help protect them.
  • Discussion is key – While you or your school may have set objectives in mind on what to teach children about online safety or digital citizenship, their views and experiences are key to supporting them to be safe online. Providing opportunities for children to share their ideas and questions is always valuable and can give you a greater insight into their digital lives and the support they might need. You may wish to use key questions to guide a discussion in a lesson, use circle time as a way to allow all learners to share something, or other concepts such as ‘talk partners’ where children can discuss concepts and ideas with a friend.
  • Make it practical – When it comes to understanding digital experiences, children find it easier to look at examples or scenarios that are relevant to them. Using visual examples, video clips and games can all provide engaging and effective ways to explore key concepts. Using role play and scenarios can provide the opportunity to regularly ask ‘What if…?’ and explore how children would manage situations they have not yet encountered, how they could support others and how they can get help if needed.
  • Involve parents and carers – When it comes to their digital lives, children’s experiences mostly take place outside of the classroom. Therefore, the support and involvement of family members is vital to reinforcing positive behaviours and attitudes. This could involve providing regular updates to parents and caregivers about what their children have learned (via a school newsletter or school social media channels), resources that might help families to have follow-up discussions with their child about what they learned at school, or training/awareness sessions for parents on how to support their child to enjoy technology and the internet positively and safely.

A useful resource that provides information for both parents/caregivers and teachers (along with supporting activities) is The School of Social Networks.

Visual showing positive teaching, discussion and practical examples

What should I consider as a Secondary teacher? 

As an educator working with young people, you have a great opportunity to positively shape and influence their attitudes and behaviours. You can also empower them to take the lead in their learning and support them in having an active voice and role in the communities they belong to (online and offline).

Here are some key things to consider if you work with young people aged 11+:

  • Positive and proactive approach – Your learners will already have existing attitudes towards their digital lives and it is important to understand and respect these in order to best support them. For some schools, teaching about particular online issues can sometimes happen in response to an incident (for example, online bullying becomes a teaching focus because some students are bullying each other online). However, a proactive approach is always recommended where possible – educating learners about the risks and helping them develop strategies to manage these risks can help prevent incidents and promote positive approaches. The tone of your teaching around online safety, digital citizenship and critical reasoning skills is also important. Taking a non-judgmental and supportive approach works better with young people than telling them what they can or cannot do online – such approaches can often backfire, especially if your learners have a rebellious streak!
  • Creating safe spaces to discuss sensitive issues – Discussion is an important component of any learning about digital citizenship and online safety. Because of the age of your students, the risks and challenges they may face online can carry a significant risk of harm. This could be physical harm, but also harm to emotional and psychological well-being, reputational harm or financial harm. Therefore, these issues can sometimes be more difficult for you as an educator to discuss, or for your learners to feel comfortable engaging in those discussions. Creating a safe space (either in school or virtually) to discuss these sensitive issues is crucial. These eight principles around creating safe spaces can help: (1) set clear ground rules, (2) take a non-judgmental approach, (3) ‘no real names’ policy, (4) listen to others, (5) no obligation to participate, (6) handling questions, (7) seating plans and (8) expectations around how you will handle disclosures.
  • Pick the right examples – When it comes to their digital lives, learners are not always comfortable with sharing and examining their own experiences and behaviours. They may feel more comfortable discussing the experiences of others. Using news stories as a way into a discussion about online behaviours can sometimes be easier and more effective. On an almost daily basis, there are stories in mainstream media of public figures and celebrities who have said or done something controversial online. These can provide a stimulus for discussions about human behaviour, making mistakes, what is acceptable, what is legal, and how the emotions and motives of those involved affected the situation. It can be tempting to pick the most controversial news stories as a way to shock or dissuade your learners from making certain choices. While controversial examples can be a useful teaching tool, it is important to be clear about your goals in using such examples and to provide a space where an open discussion can take place between your learners.
  • Let your learners take the lead – Given the huge range of apps, games and services available online, your learners’ experiences can differ dramatically. It can be impossible for you to fully cover and understand all these experiences in order to give the best advice and support. Encouraging your learners to engage in peer-led learning can be an effective way of promoting positive digital skills and attitudes. Some of your learners may respond better to learning from their peers; they may feel it is more relevant and that they are understood. Letting your learners take the lead in crafting the key questions to guide a discussion or debate, writing the scenarios for a role-play exercise, or conducting independent research to learn about a topic are all strategies that can encourage deeper thinking and understanding.

What else should I consider?

In addition to the specific suggestions for primary and secondary learners, here are some additional considerations that can assist you in developing a positive and effective approach to teaching online safety, media literacy and digital citizenship.

  • Make cross-curricular links – Even schools that devote a lot of time to teaching these areas struggle to make room in a busy curriculum, so looking for opportunities within other subjects to teach specific online safety or media literacy concepts is often the best approach. For example, literacy lessons (or lessons about your native language) provide numerous opportunities to explore how information can be presented differently online (including to trick or deceive), and history lessons can explore motives and behaviours from the past and how these might be similar or different to those of people online in the present. Physical education lessons offer the chance to discuss health, fitness and diet advice online and how to evaluate it. Links across different subjects can be found everywhere! If you have time, you could map the key areas of online risk (outlined in the Key online safety risks learning module) to a specific subject curriculum to identify where opportunities for cross-curricular teaching may exist.
  • What do your learners want to know? – While your school may have a defined curriculum around online safety or media literacy, there may be topics or areas that your learners are worried about or keen to learn more about. You may wish to run a class or school survey with students to identify these areas. You could also ask questions that help you to better understand their digital lives – for example, their favourite apps/games/services, their attitudes towards online behaviours, whether they know where to get help/support, and so on.
  • What do you need to know? – Online safety, media literacy and digital citizenship are broad and complex areas. No teacher is expected to be an expert in these, but improving your awareness, knowledge and understanding within these areas can be hugely beneficial to supporting your learners. There are lots of resources available for you to explore throughout the BIK Teacher corner, including deep-dive articles on specific topics, and longer online courses (MOOCs). You can also explore the range of resources offered on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal.
  • Do you know how to handle issues? – When teaching about online safety and digital lives, it is likely that some learners may disclose experiences that give you a cause for concern. Make sure that you are familiar with your school’s policies and procedures for child protection, and that you know how to handle any disclosures made, and who to inform in school to provide further help and support for any child/young person involved. There may also be specific sources of support available in your country such as from the national Safer Internet Centre or other helplines and organisations. Take the time to explore what help is available.

Useful resources

Further information, advice and materials can be found in the following resources: