Applies to England
The Department for Education (DfE), in collaboration with partners in the UK Council for Internet Safety Education subgroup and the Samaritans, has developed advice for schools and colleges to support their approach to harmful online challenges and online hoaxes. Other education settings may also find it useful.
A hoax is a deliberate lie designed to seem truthful, and online challenges generally involve users recording themselves taking a challenge, and then distributing the video through social media channels, inspiring or daring others to repeat the challenge.
Children and young people should be free to enjoy the internet safely. The online environment you create, how your institution plans and responds to harmful online challenges and online hoaxes, and how your institution teaches about online safety, are important.
What you can do to prepare for the next harmful online challenge and online hoax
Keeping Children Safe in Education sets out that an effective approach to online safety empowers a school or college to protect and educate the whole school or college community in their use of technology, and establish mechanisms to identify, intervene in and escalate incidents where appropriate.
You should consider embedding an effective approach to planning for, and responding to, online challenges and online hoaxes in relevant policies such as:
- child protection
- staff behaviour
- mobile devices
You should help children and young people, parents, carers and staff be clear, in advance, what your institution is likely to do when a harmful online challenge or online hoax begins to circulate.
Keeping children safe in education sets out that schools and colleges should have appropriate filters and monitoring systems in place. It is important to understand the limitations of filtering with regard to harmful online challenges and online hoaxes. Talk to your filtering provider on a regular basis.
Most children and young people enjoy unrestricted online access via 3G, 4G and 5G on phones, tablets and smart devices. Your mobile devices policy should reflect this risk, and it should be recognised when considering how best to teach your children and young people about online safety and how you will respond to harmful online challenges and online hoaxes.
Consider how best to teach your children and young people about online safety, in a way that is appropriate for their age and stage of development. Among other things, the relationships, sex and health education resources and Education for a Connected World will be useful. Further information on these resources is available in the Teaching children and young people about online safety section.
Children and young people should have the opportunity to learn to critically identify and respond to dangerous or harmful content. Schools and colleges should always be aware that some children, young people (and adults) will struggle to identify harmful online challenges and online hoaxes. It is therefore important that institutions provide safe and open spaces for children and young people to ask questions and share concerns about what they experience online without being made to feel foolish or blamed.
This should form part of your safeguarding approach (in line with Keeping children safe in education). You should make clear the avenues that children and young people have to access support if they are curious, worried or upset.
Posters setting out who to go to with a concern (be it online or offline) within and outside your establishment can help. It is important that if children and young people do report something, they feel confident it will be taken seriously and acted upon appropriately. The best interests of the child or young person must always come first.
It is important to encourage parents and carers to discuss online safety at home and to talk to their child about what they do online.
What you should do when a harmful online challenge or online hoax might be circulating between children and young people
As the safeguarding lead in your institution, the designated safeguarding lead (DSL) should be involved in, and is probably best placed to lead, the pre-planning and provide any formal responses, if deemed necessary.
You should undertake a case-by-case assessment, establishing the scale and nature of the possible risk to your children and young people, including considering (where the evidence allows) if the risk is a national one or is it localised to your area, or even just your institution. Quick local action may prevent a local online hoax or local harmful online challenge going viral (quickly and widely spread).
The DSL should check the factual basis of any harmful online challenge or online hoax with a known, reliable and trustworthy source, such as the Professional Online Safety Helpline from the UK Safer Internet Centre. Where harmful online challenges or online hoaxes appear to be local (rather than large scale national ones) local safeguarding advice, such as from the local authority or local police force, may also be appropriate and helpful.
Should you share information and issue a warning to children, young people, parents, carers and staff?
Forward planning, together with case-by-case research, will allow for a calm and measured response and avoid creating panic or confusion.
Is it an online hoax?
A hoax is a deliberate lie designed to seem truthful. The internet and social media provide a perfect platform for hoaxes, especially hoaxes about challenges or trends that are said to be harmful to children and young people to be spread quickly.
You should carefully consider if a challenge or scare story is a hoax. Generally speaking, naming an online hoax and providing direct warnings is not helpful. Concerns are often fuelled by unhelpful publicity, usually generated on social media, and may not be based on confirmed or factual occurrences or any real risk to children and young people. There have been examples of hoaxes where much of the content was created by those responding to the story being reported, needlessly increasing children and young people’s exposure to distressing content.
Evidence from Childline shows that, following viral online hoaxes, children and young people often seek support after witnessing harmful and distressing content that has been highlighted, or directly shown to them (often with the best of intentions), by parents, carers, schools and other bodies
Is it a real online challenge that might cause harm to children and young people?
An online challenge will generally involve users recording themselves taking a challenge and then distributing the resulting video through social media sites, often inspiring or daring others to repeat the challenge. Whilst many will be safe and fun, others can be potentially harmful and even life threatening.
If you are confident children and young people are aware of, and engaged in, a real challenge that may be putting them at risk of harm, then it would be appropriate for this to be directly addressed. Carefully consider how best to do this. It may be appropriate to offer focussed support to a particular age group or individual children at risk. Remember, even with real challenges, many children and young people may not have seen it and may not be aware of it. You must carefully weigh up the benefits of institution-wide highlighting of the potential harms related to a challenge against needlessly increasing children and young people’s exposure to it.
Online challenge or online hoax, some principles remain the same
You should avoid sharing upsetting or scary content to show children and young people what they “might” see online. Exposing children and young people (many of whom will not be aware of or have seen the online challenge or hoax) in your institution to upsetting or scary content will be counterproductive and potentially harmful. If you do feel it is necessary to directly address an issue, this can be achieved without exposing children and young people to scary or distressing content.
Whatever the response, ask:
- is it factual?
- is it proportional to the actual (or perceived) risk?
- is it helpful?
- is it age and stage of development appropriate?
- is it supportive?
Helpful messages to share with parents and carers include encouraging them to focus on positive and empowering online behaviours with their children, such as critical thinking, how and where to report concerns about harmful content and how to block content and users.
When dealing with harmful online challenges and viral online hoaxes, there can be an added pressure from parents and carers for schools and colleges to directly address concerns. DSLs need to consider how best to manage these anxieties, and reassure concerned parents and carers, whilst not making a situation worse. Pre-planning and pre-engagement will help.
It’s important that, as an organisation with a duty to safeguard the welfare of the children and young people in your care, you only share accurate information
If a child raises concerns about a harmful online challenge or online hoax directly
Consider the best way to speak to individual children or, where appropriate, in classes (but, as above, be mindful of needlessly exposing all children and young people to something they may not even be aware of or concerned about).
While acknowledging it, if it has been raised directly, avoid overly focusing on whatever the latest harmful online challenge or online hoax might be. Focus on what good online behaviour looks like, what to do if you see something upsetting online and who and where to report it. Fact checking by the DSL, may help dispel myths if children and young people are identifying that they are particularly concerned that the latest online challenge or online hoax has put them or their friends at risk.
Challenges and hoaxes
- online safety alerts: think before you scare provides information on why sharing warnings can be counterproductive
- the ‘digital ghost stories’ report looks at the impact and risks of hoaxes
- UK Safer Internet Centre provides advice for school on responding to online challenges
- Samaritans shares information about challenges relating to suicide and self-harm research into online suicide challenges
Teaching children and young people about online safety
- Relationships, sex and health
- Online safety in schools
- Teacher training: internet safety and harms
- Teacher training: online relationships and media
- Education for a connected world framework
- Programme of study for personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education (key stages 1–5)
Supporting children and young people
- NSPCC: let children know you’re listening
- Childline for free and confidential advice
- What to do if you see worrying suicide and self-harm content online
- Talking safely about suicide online
Support for parents and carers
- Thinkuknow: helping adults protect children from online harm
- Parent Info: help and advice for families in a digital world
- Internet Matters: helping parents keep their children safe online
- NSPCC: online safety
- London grid for learning (LGfL): online safety
- UK safer internet centre: Tips, advice, guides and resources to help keep your child safe online
- Childnet international: parents and carers toolkit
- Parentzone: experts in digital family life
- LGfL: parents - scare or prepare
- Thinkuknow: what to do if there’s a viral scare online