Cyber safety education is the key for keeping students safe online - Education Matters Magazine
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Cyber safety education is the key for keeping students safe online


Unless all parties are educated and vigilant about cyber safety, children cannot stay safe online, writes Leonie Smith.

Cyber safety education for all parties charged with the responsibility for student safety online is vital. Cyber safety is a community responsibility. The safety of students from primary school all the way through high school cannot be simply one stakeholder’s duty. Unless all parties are educated and vigilant about cyber safety, children cannot stay safe online.

A recent study showed that parents overwhelmingly see their child’s school as being entirely responsible for their child’s cyber safety education, according to 85 percent of Australian teachers surveyed by AVG Technologies1. In leaving their child’s online safety education entirely up to schools, parents are then not seeking out or accepting responsibility for educating themselves on cyber safety, and are then not able to adequately protect and supervise their child online. This is most evident by the reluctance of many parents to attend cyber safety or technology nights at most schools.

Most of my colleagues and the educators I speak to, readily complain that only a small fraction of a school’s parent body are receptive to cyber safety or technology nights. So much so, that some schools have given up holding them for parents altogether.

Furthermore, statistics show that most cyber safety issues occur outside of school grounds and most often in students’ homes right under the supervision of their parents2. Without parents being educated on how to supervise their kids online, they are not able to effectively protect their children at home from cyber safety issues such as talking to strangers online, cyber bullying or unsafe sharing.

Teachers feel underprepared to deal with cyber safety issues at schools

Educators are also reporting that they feel under-qualified to educate children about cyber safety. This job is often left to outside resources or one of the school’s ICT staff, who often don’t have the specialised expertise that a dedicated cyber safety educator has about popular social media platforms and other apps that children use1.

Cyber safety is a specialised field, one which requires a deep understanding of internet culture, digital technology and more importantly, how children are actually engaging with the social side of the digital world, including gaming, messaging, blogging, sharing and chatting online.

Issues that a cyber-safety educator might have to address are: 

  • Teaching students how to have an abusive post removed;
  • Teaching students about privacy settings and security settings on apps;
  • Education around safe sharing and posting only to friends how to do this;
  • Education around which apps are safe or unsafe;
  • Issues around cyber bullying how to prevent, report and block;
  • Safe downloading of games, and other apps;
  • Identifying well known scams on social media;
  • Tips for safe online gaming; and,
  • Password and account safety, passwords and security

Staying up-to-date with technology in respect to cyber safety is a full time job. And it is harder to stay up to date if you are not ‘out in the field’ dealing with all types of situations that insist that you keep you up to date with the issues that children are facing in the digital world.

What about the parents?

Educators can certainly help support safe internet use by educating and holding talks and discussions amongst students in the class room, but teachers cannot be held responsible for supervising students when students most need it, outside of school. Student education on cyber safety isn’t enough to keep students safe online. Students still need informed and educated supervision and boundaries around digital technology in and out of the home environment.

It is very important that parents can also help in a crisis if, and when, something goes wrong for their child online, taking some of the burden from schools who are inundated with reports from parents of upsetting incidents that happen to students online. The better educated your parent body is, the less online incidents there will be amongst students and the less reports schools will have to deal with. It is imperative that your parent body is educated about cyber safety.

How to educate parents?

There are a huge amount of resources for educators and parents to help with cyber safety, but more often the resources are very generic and not specific to the issues the parent might have. For example, “How do I have an abusive post removed from Ask.FM?” General online cyber safety resources are often difficult to navigate for parents who more often are looking for a link to speak directly to an advisor to get help. In many cases parents will simply Google for an answer to their problem. The most common question that gets searched for on my website is, “Is Kik Messenger safe for kids?” This search term links to an article I wrote on Kik Messenger.

Judging from feedback from my talks and from what I’m hearing anecdotally, the most effective way to help educators, students and parents to stay safe online – and to know what to do when they have a problem – is through education. Achieving this through a talk or a workshop that involves some of the school staff, a cyber-safety educator and possibly the local police seems to get some good results.

Most of my parent talks on the Northern Beaches here in Sydney are done in conjunction with the local area command police and the teaching staff of the school I’m presenting at. This gives parents an opportunity to hear from three involved parties about the issues that need to be addressed. Parents want advice on the dangers, technical solutions and digital parenting tips, but in a very practical down to earth level.

Why aren’t parents showing up for cyber safety talks?

Within the cyber safety community worldwide, parents are seen as the ‘weakest link’ in keeping kids safe online. Parents expect schools to do all the heavy lifting as far as cyber safety goes, and are then not equipped to effectively supervise their own children in the digital space. They don’t know how to enable safe technology or behaviour and cannot help effectively in a crisis because they don’t know what solutions are available.

When I talk with parents and teachers about why parents are not attending cyber safety talks, the types of responses I get in regard to why parents are not showing up can be summarised like this:

  • We have it all under control we don’t need it;
  • I’m terrified about what I will learn;
  • It’s the schools responsibility;
  • We will never be able to keep up with our kids so we just hope for the best;
  • Our kids aren’t really using technology that much (they often don’t see iPods as an internet connected device);
  • We are too busy;
  • We can’t get a babysitter; or,
  • My husband/wife/brother/nephew looks after all that.

The first objection is by far the most popular. It’s because parents simply don’t know what they don’t know. They often base their understanding on the safety of the internet on their own experience. The parent may not have had a problem online, so they feel the internet is safe for their child. The biggest problem with this is that children don’t use the internet in the same way as adults do. Children are far more exploratory. They will click on flashing pop ups, search for things that might bring up adult content, talk to strangers for a thrill, collect a massive amount of followers to look popular and appear like a celebrity. And if threatened online may comply with a predators wishes, out of fear and to stay out of trouble. And according to a recent study 70 percent of them are hiding their online interactions, including negative ones3.

The second objection is a real problem if you have had a cyber safety talk in the past where the parents have ended up feeling more fearful and confused than when they arrived. If the presenter only provides scary stories of pedophiles and strangers and cyber bullies. If parents feel castigated or shamed for not being vigilant enough, it can put parents off from attending the next talk. It’s a fine balance between telling parents the cold hard facts, and helping them to put some strategies in place that will start to bridge the gap between them and their children. A positive approach to cyber safety has been found to be far more effective than an overall negative and fear driven approach4.

So how do we encourage parents to attend education on cyber safety and digital education?

The community needs to start talking.

If parents don’t feel their children are at risk, if they feel there is nothing they need to be aware of, it’s because no one is really being honest about what is going on.

Students are not telling adults when they have an upsetting experience online. Teachers can’t talk about the issues their students are having online to the general parent population because of privacy issues. Parents are not talking to other parents about some of the incidents that are happening because they often feel guilty and shamed by it, and they are concerned with their child’s privacy. So there is an unintended ‘conspiracy of silence’ around cyber safety, with parents being the ones being kept largely in the dark.

Some schools are so desperate to have their parents more educated, that they have resorted to compulsory technology/cyber safety nights before they will allow their students to take responsibility for a school supplied laptop or iPad. And I personally think that it is probably a good suggestion, but only if the outcome of the education creates positive change.

Cyber safety education has to provide:

  • Education about dangers, and how to avoid those dangers;
  • Education on how children are using technology differently to adults;
  • Advice for parents on managing devices at home;
  • Solutions for finding out more about privacy settings, safe search settings, family friendly filters for modems and devices;
  • Solutions for preventing and dealing with cyber bullying;
  • Education about online behaviour and self-moderation, screen time;
  • Education around online scams;
  • Education on how parents can also stay safer online;
  • Advice on how to communicate better with their children about their digital world;
  • Education about what is coming up in the future, trends new technology; and,
  • Advice on how to keep up with your kids online.

Parent education versus parent/student combined education

It’s important for parents to have a separate cyber safety education session apart from their children so that parents can hear solutions to help them with parenting a child in the digital age. I call it ‘secret parent business’. Some educational talks are held in conjunction with students and this can also be beneficial to get parents and students both on the same page, but it is difficult to deal with ‘parent only’ issues in this space.

Note: Many parents want student/parent nights, but be warned, it is often because the parents don’t have the confidence to address the issue one-on-one with their child and again are wanting the school to back them up on cyber safety. I’m often asked if I can pop over to see a family to have a ‘word’ with their child about their online behaviour. Parents need to find the confidence and courage through their own education, to parent in the digital space and not outsource it to The Cyber Safety Lady, or their child’s school.

Education for teachers

Schools have a responsibility to ensure that their staff are up to date as much as possible with how their students are using technology.

  • What apps are students using now or in the future?
  • What are the potential dangers?
  • What can be done if a student needs a post removed from a platform?
  • Where to go next if you can’t help?
  • What types of solutions will help prevent cyber bullying between students?
  • What is the first thing that needs to be done if a student posts an abusive message about another student?
  • If a parent won’t protect their child at home on the internet what do you do next?

Schools also need to address issues and place boundaries around behaviour before it happens. For example, filming and photography by students on school groundsor messaging and texting at school. Students posting disparaging posts about staff and other students online consequences. Wearable technology and smart watches.

Educating students

Educating students is ineffective if students feel they are being spoken to by someone who knows less than they do about the digital space. They quickly tune out if the cyber safety ‘expert’ starts talking about online platforms that were popular last year, or ones that students are moving away from. It is vital that whoever is educating students is honest about their knowledge of the digital world and understands the needs of students and the world they are living in online. Fear tactics only work so far, and don’t work on all students. Patronising cartoons with silly songs don’t really engage students in a way that is realistic or relates to their real world issues.

Students I speak to are overwhelmingly looking for practical advice on how to use the messaging apps and online platforms so that they can share with friends without being hassled by weirdoes and cyber bullies.

The cyber safety hands on privacy settings workshops I hold for high school are embraced by students because the workshop addresses a need that is almost never covered. How to set up your social media platforms and messaging apps so that they don’t get hacked and you don’t get hassled by people you don’t want to communicate with. This is a very new area, and one that most cyber safety experts or teachers are unable to help with, due to the fact that these settings change all the time, and many cyber safety educators are not technical but work mainly on behaviour online.

A school cyber safety blog or newsletter

Another effective way to educate parents and students is to include relevant cyber safety education and alerts in regard to unsafe online behaviour in school newsletters. A few schools have a dedicated cyber safety blog as part of their website where parents can read weekly updates on new issues in regard to online safety, this is usually staffed by a cyber-savvy teacher.

Different styles of cyber safety educators

Cyber Safety education is so new that you simply cannot do a course on it to acquire a recognised qualification. There is no cyber safety degree. You can certainly have other degrees and certificate-style qualifications that help you to understand the technology or the criminal side of cyber safety, but most cyber safety educators have come into cyber safety from another related field.

Many cyber safety educators are either working for online security companies, or Telcos or ISPs or government-backed organisations or charities. They may be qualified computer engineers or software engineers or police, or psychologists or online community managers like myself.

So who is the best person to teach your school and students and parents cyber safety? I don’t think there is one best person. Every cyber safety educator brings their own perspective and experience with them to inform the approach they have to cyber safety education. In the same way as you might bring an educator or facilitator to your school to talk about drug and alcohol education, or positive body image education. Deciding on a cyber safety educator very much depends on the approach that your school wants to take in regard to this issue. Harm minimisation verses zero policy for example, behavioural or technical solutions or both? Many schools vary their cyber safety education and presenters for this reason. Different perspectives and styles can be very helpful and appeal to different personalities and school cultures. The bottom line is results!

Upcoming issues for schools to be aware of and start planning for

  • Violent porn shared/viewed on mobile devices, potential for legal action;
  • VPN apps – apps used for circumventing school Wi-Fi internet filter;
  • Wearable technology – smart watches that play games, texting/messaging, photos;
  • Drones – yes they are getting smaller and smaller with cameras;
  • Anonymous photo/messaging/email sharing apps – sharing a photo anonymously with random strangers in your school or community has the potential for blackmail and cyber bullying;
  • Anonymous confession style apps – Whisper, Secret & Yik Yak; and,
  • Chat with strangers and hook up apps like – MeowChat and Tinder.



  1. AVG Jul 2014
  1. AIFS Parental involvement in preventing and responding to cyberbullying
  1. McAfee Aug 2014
  1. Telstra 2014


Leonie Smith is an Australian cyber safety educator. She educates teachers, parents, students, seniors and business groups on safe use of online platforms and digital technology. Leonie is an early adopter of the online world starting in 1996. 

She is one of the founders of Aussie Deaf Kids, an online support group for parents of deaf and hearing impaired children which started in 2000. She was an ambassador for the Federal Government’s 2013 stay safe online campaign, and is a founding board member of the anti-bullying charity The Community Brave Foundation.

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