Digitalme's Damian Payton argues that it's time for schools to embrace social media
Children at Riversdale School, WimbledonChildren at Riversdale School, Wimbledon, get their Safe AwardsSchools aren’t keeping pace with children’s cultural lives outside their gates. Social networking and smartphones power young people’s interactions and are their default information sources, but are forbidden in most schools.

EU Kids Online, the recent LSE survey, tells us that around 25 per cent of Year 5s use social networks. Isn’t it best then that we help young people learn to use these tools safely and enjoyably, by running safe social networking activity in schools?

Sound radical? We at DigitalMe don’t think so. It’s a well-worn approach, just like swimming lessons, or the Green Cross Code. We don’t tell young people not to enter water, or use roads – we teach them to manage the risks and stay safe. Likewise, educators should take a lead in helping young people to live well online.

Standard e-safety techniques – banning, locking and blocking – may keep control in the classroom, but they are not helping young people to learn online self-protection. As they leave the grounds, they switch their handhelds back on and head home to computers and games consoles.

We should not demonise the technology that young people love; we should help them use it for their learning and personal development.

But how do teachers help when young people are the experts in these digital tools? Well, are they the experts? Yes and no. They are prolific and instinctive users, more deeply immersed in social media than most teachers. But educators can teach them to use discretion and judgement, and to use the online world as a learning tool, not just for entertainment.

'Learning through doing' for social networking

Over the past 18 months, supported by the Nominet Trust, DigitalMe has devised a "learning through doing" approach, helping children aged 7 to 11 to develop the skills they need to enjoy social networking and stay safe online. 

Safe poses three key questions for pupils to ask before they share information or media when using social networks:

  • Who will see what you share? How do you control who can see it?
  • What are you sharing? Is it yours to share? What personal information are you sharing?
  • Where are you sharing things? Is this the best place for you and your work?

Children are rewarded with Safe Certificates and schools can gain a Safe School Award. A nice idea, but has it been tested? Well, more than 1,500 schools have now signed up to Safe, which suggests there is an appetite for bringing social networking into the classroom.

Kennington Junior School in Kent have gone through the programme. A teacher says: “I have been able to have more open discussion with children about what they do and don’t do – rather than what they should and should not do – online.”

So on Safer Internet Day let’s move away from negative messages telling schools to stay away from social networking, towards an approach which embraces social media as a useful part of children’s lives while building their own capacity to make good decisions when an adult isn’t there to do it for them.

Damian Payton is development director at, the social learning company that created Safe, the Certificate In Safe Social Networking

More information

The Safe website (free resources) 
Radiowaves – a place to complete Safe activities and see work created by other schools 
Enjoying Social Media and Staying Safe online - Prezi 
Cyber Mentors – an excellent service dealing with cyberbullying 
EU Kids Online – a large, recent e-safety survey by the LSE 
360 – free self review tool assisting schools in developing an e-safety policy 
Safer Internet Day - links to organisations and initiatives around digital well-being 
The I in Online – privacy educational resources 

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