What You Need to Know about Hoaxes and Online Challenges
The more time is spent in the digital world, the more users are exposed to online harms such as cyberbullying, fake news, and scams.
Two other online harms that soared during the pandemic are online challenges and hoaxes.
Online challenges have become more popular since the rise of TikTok, with the majority being a bit of harmless fun to help children and young people to pass the time. However challenges such as the silhouette challenge, which encouraged online predators, serve as a much-needed reminder of the what risks can accompany them.
Furthermore, online hoaxes have also increased during the pandemic as more people work and learn from home. Hoax emails, such as the NHS vaccine invitation emails, have seen a sharp increase during months of social restrictions as cybercriminals try to take advantage of our increased time online.
In this article, highly-experienced designated safeguarding lead, Lorna Ponambalum helps to explain what online challenges and online hoaxes are, what the government response is and what practical measures schools can put in place to help keep children safe.
What is an online challenge?
Online challenges in the past few years have become an important trend to be aware of when supporting and educating young people about how to stay safe online.
The guidance states: "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."
Many types of online challenges can range from harmless and silly to upsetting and dangerous. Examples of silly online challenges include the Mannequin Challenge or the Try Not to Laugh Challenge made popular by YouTubers. Then there are slightly risky challenges such as the Tidepod and Shell On Challenges. Some online challenges such as the ASL Ice Bucket Challenge and the No Makeup have even raised money for good causes. However, some of these challenges are extremely dangerous, resulting in physical injury and sometimes death, like the Momo Challenge or the Blue Whale Challenge.
Why are online challenges a concern?
Many children and young people often watch these challenges on YouTube for entertainment, but sometimes the challenges inspire them to attempt them themselves. This can be an issue as sometimes online challenges may be attempted by children and young people because of peer pressure. Some children may do them because of the fear of missing out (FOMO).
Often, online challenges are filmed and then distributed via social media channels with the hope of getting more views or ‘likes’ This can then lead to children and young people either feeling anxious or depressed as they may think that they are not as popular as their peers. It can also lead to online bullying where they may be teased, taunted, or ignored for carrying out a particular online challenge.
Online challenges are often fads meaning that what may be popular today could be replaced by another one tomorrow. For adults, this makes it more difficult to keep abreast of what young people are experiencing in the online world.
What is an online hoax?
A hoax is a deliberate lie designed to seem truthful. Online hoaxes are fictional stories or images that are untrue or are alterations of the truth which are then spread throughout the internet, generally via social media platforms or emails. The internet and social media provide a perfect platform for hoaxes as they can be spread quickly, which is one reason why they are so harmful especially to children and young people.
Online hoaxes are intended to influence people’s beliefs or opinions of usually controversial topics. The aim is to elicit fear, anger, or make the content seem more important than it is. Usually, an online hoax will make someone forward, reply, or action something without first validating the source of information.
Government response to online challenges
The government released advice to support their approach to harmful online challenges and online hoaxes. The guidance is a collaboration with the UK Council for Internet Safety Education subgroup and the Samaritans.
This non-statutory advice aims to support designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) or equivalents, and senior leadership teams to respond effectively to incidents involving harmful online challenges and online hoaxes. It includes advice on preparing in advance for any online challenges and hoaxes. safeguarding children and young people, and sharing information with parents and carers.
The guidance is coupled with Keeping Children Safe in Education but has new ideas about how it should be implemented.
It highlights the importance of safeguarding procedures, internet filtering and monitoring procedures, pastoral support and suggests that schools and colleges need to consider how best to teach children and young people about online safety, in a way that is appropriate for their age and stage of development.
Although the guidance applies to all schools and colleges in England Wales, it is equally applicable to other educational settings.
What do schools need to consider?
All DSLs should read the guidance and consider the following:
- Have a clear message to all staff about how the school or college will respond to and report these events.
- Think about how the school or college will teach students about these hoaxes as part of online safety so they can critically identify and respond to harmful content.
- Create safe and open spaces for young people to ask questions and share concerns about their experiences online without feeling foolish or being blamed.
- Ensure that students know where they can go to get help both in school and through external organisations such as ChildLine.
- Consider how to raise awareness about online challenges and online hoaxes by using posters, the school website or notices boards in schools.
- Consider how the school will proactively encourage parents to talk about these issues. It could be through your parent governors or a parent association if the school has one.
- Ensure the school has the appropriate filters and monitoring systems in place by liaising with the school technical support staff.
- Make sure that the relevant policies are updated to reflect the approach when dealing with online challenges and online hoaxes. These include the school’s child protection, behaviour, code of conduct and mobile devices policies.
If a harmful online challenge or hoax may be circulating:
- Carry out a risk assessment by establishing the scale and nature of the possible risk to the 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 school or college. Rapid local action could prevent a local online hoax or local harmful online challenge from going viral.
- Check the validity of the hoax with the Professional Online Safety Helpline (Please note the link in the guidance does not work) and local agencies as required.
- Do not overreact - keep a calm and measured approach.
- Avoid naming and sharing the hoax unless in exceptional circumstances. Doing so could lead to unnecessary attention and children and young people are more likely to search for things that they have been told not to.
If young people are placing themselves at risk of harm, schools will need to consider how best to address this. It is best to focus support on a year group, tutor group, or individual children rather than the whole school. Consider the benefits against the potential harms: if it felt necessary to directly address an issue then it should be achieved without exposing children and young people to scary or distressing content.
When faced with a potentially harmful online challenge or hoax it is important when considering the response to ask yourself the following questions:
- 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?
Where a student may be at risk of significant harm follow your safeguarding procedures and consider a referral to children's social care.
Sharing information with the school community about online challenges and hoaxes
Share accurate and helpful messages with parents and carers to reassure them as some will have concerns and anxieties about this issue. Schools can use information that has been previously communicated and will need to consider how best to manage these anxieties from concerned parents and carers.
Schools should try to focus on positive and empowering online behaviours such as critical thinking, reporting concerns, blocking content/users, and knowing where to get help. It is also important that, as an organisation with a duty to safeguard the welfare of the children and young people in your care, that schools only share accurate information.
Avoid focusing on the latest hoax or trend with students. Keep attention on positive online behaviours, what to do, and where to report it.
DSLs should fact check the online hoax in order dispel some of the myths and reassure young people.
Schools and parents/carers must work together and keep an open dialogue to ensure children and young people know how to seek help if they see or experience upsetting things online.
Equally, schools need to use the 'think before they share' online warnings with their communities.
Next steps for schools
- Read the guidance.
- Update relevant policies in light of the new guidance.
- This includes the safeguarding, behaviour, code of conduct and mobile devices policy.
- Update your staff training schedule to share the latest guidance about harmful online challenges and online hoaxes.
- Does your school’s Relationships and Sex education (RSE) and Health education curriculum include teaching about online challenges and online hoaxes?
- Consider how to share this information with the rest of the school community using the ‘think before they share’ philosophy.
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