Being risk-aware online

How can schools encourage a more positive, risk aware attitude to online activities? Gill O’Donnell offers strategies for identifying and managing online risks

Author details

A former teacher, Gill O'Donnell now works alongside her husband as a health and safety consultant on everything from large international exhibitions through to small local charities. Her ethos is to demystify Health and Safety issues by making...

Many young people are simply not aware that some of their online behaviour may be regarded as criminal and can have long term consequences. Young people often have difficulty with the concept that actions online don’t just disappear when you switch off your device but remain in the open and actions committed in the virtual world are not somehow “less serious” than those in the real world.

Criminality and consequences

Common negative behaviours whose consequences should be considered are:

  • cyberbullying
  • trolling
  • blackmailing
  • sexting.

Cyberbullying can be defined as the use of electronic communication devices to bully a person. Examples of cyberbullying could include posting mean, offensive or embarrassing comments or photos on social networking websites, sending threatening or abusive emails, or creating fake online profiles to embarrass or belittle another person.

Cyberbullying is not covered by a specific law in the UK. However, by committing an act of cyberbullying, a person may be committing a criminal offence under several different acts, including The Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Offences can face serious penalties including restraining orders, financial penalties or even a prison term.

Trolling is normally defined as the sending of menacing or upsetting messages on social networks, chat rooms, or online games. Trolling is typically used to irritate communities or people who hold specific beliefs or positions of power.

The seemingly anonymous nature of internet commenting allows ‘trolls’ to operate without fear of punishment. At present there is the possibility of prosecution for behaviour of this sort, with a range of penalties including jail.

Online blackmail can take place in any online service, website or app. Blackmailers may be more likely to make threats on private messaging services where images and videos can be shared. However, they may threaten to share information or images in more public social media services.

There may be physical threats if the person does not respond to a demand. Often the blackmailer will try to coerce their victim into posting sexual images which they can then manipulate and re-post. Again, this kind of behaviour can lead to prosecutions.

It is not always possible to eliminate the risk but it is important is to be aware of it and to take steps to minimise it

Sexting is defined as the sending of indecent images (pictures and/or videos) of yourself or others or sending sexually explicit messages. Sexting can happen on any electronic device that allows sharing of media and messages including smartphones, tablets, laptops or mobiles.

It is an offence to make, distribute, possess or show any indecent images of anyone aged under 18, even if the content was created with the consent of that young person. In this context indecent means:

  • naked pictures
  • topless pictures of a girl
  • pictures of genitals
  • sex acts including masturbation or sexually provocative positions
  • sexual pictures in underwear.

It is the norm for police to treat sexting by children primarily as a safeguarding issue. The police must record all sexting incidents, but they can decide not to take further action against the young person if it is not in the public interest. This will however be at the discretion of the police and will depend on the full circumstances in which the act took place.

Indulging in negative behaviours of the kind examined above can have a long-lasting effect in that they remain forever as part of the individual’s online footprint with everything accessible to future educational bodies and employers.

Behaviour which leads to criminal investigation will also remain with an individual and may cause difficulty in later life in issues as diverse as travelling abroad (not all countries will accept those with certain convictions) to career choice. It is also vital to stress to young people travelling abroad that the law on the issues above varies from country to country and that not all countries are as liberal as the UK.


This can be divided into two main areas:

  1. adults
  2. students.

1. Adults

Both parents and staff need to be sufficiently confident to deal with online issues and know how to offer appropriate interventions and advice. This does not mean putting barriers in place to prevent students encountering any risk online. There is a place for parental and school-initiated controls, banned sites and using firewalls and filters but these alone are not a total answer.

Adults need to be given information on how to signpost students to appropriate sites and be given opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge to know how and when to intervene. Shared learning sessions with students and adults on the topic of online safety, particularly those with external speakers, provide an opportunity to develop the technical skills while also making sure that home and school are reinforcing the same messages. The link with home can be further reinforced by:

  • sharing news activities and events via social media
  • sending newsletters
  • providing useful handouts
  • circulating new and updated online safety policies and procedures
  • arranging sessions where parents/cares can see and use the learning resources used in the classroom.

Embed key messages about staying safe online throughout the curriculum

2. Students

Students need sufficient confidence in their own judgement to know when they need to seek help. To do this they need to be risk aware. Explain the dangers and consequences and teach strategies for how to deal with reducing risks. 

The same principle of risk assessment which is part of the school ethos elsewhere should be echoed around online safety. It is important that the subject is not confined within the barriers of a specific one slot lesson per week but instead there are ongoing conversations with students about the benefits and dangers of the internet.

Embedding key messages about staying safe online throughout the curriculum will help to ensure that students know how to stay safe from others and avoid putting themselves in a hazardous situation through their own behaviour.


There needs to be an openness between staff at all levels, between staff and home, and between staff and students. Everyone needs to be aware of the online safety policy and how it is implemented.

There will always be some online risk to every user, and the degree of risk does depend on the competency and maturity of the individual concerned. It is not always possible to eliminate the risk but it is important is to be aware of it and to take steps to minimise it. 

There should be a regular pattern of review of online safety measures to ensure that they are keeping pace with new trends and that they remain effective and appropriate. Online safety incidents should be logged, and this record used to monitor what is taking place.

As well as logging what has happened, log the steps which have been taken as this an efficient way to observe developing trends which can be helpful in providing a proactive response to situations as they emerge.

Adopt a practical approach to the issue of online safety; you don’t need to become an expert in all areas, but you do need to know how to find information and how to apply it to your own situation. Stay abreast of information provided by government, children’s charities such as NSPCC and Childline, and make use of local resources such as local police, magistrates in the community schemes and local IT professionals who can offer a new insight onto the issue.

Last Updated: 
04 May 2022