What pupils see and do on their internet-enabled devices is having an impact on their schooling.

JULIE ASHER looks at how Central Otago schools are addressing the issue.

FORGET weak chat-up lines at dances and pubs as a way of signalling your romantic interest in someone . . .today school pupils are texting photos ‘‘not of their faces’’ as an invitation to hook up . . .and that does not mean going fishing.

Teenagers are naturally curious and keen to push boundaries and today they literally have a world of information at their fingertips.

Schools bear the brunt of their pupils’ online activity in many ways from lack to sleep because they are online half the night to bullying and anxiety about checking their phone’s notifications.

Dunstan High School, in Alexandra, and Cromwell College are both proactively addressing the problems by hosting New Zealand film-maker and author Rob Cope, whose own research began when he and wife Zareen were being asked by their children for mobile phones.

Their research ultimately led them to creating cyber safety presentations for parents and caregivers.

In 2020, they released their first documentary Our Kids Online: Porn, Predators & How to Keep Them Safe. Their second documentary Our Kids Online: Social Media, Gaming & the Developing Brain is in production.

Schools around Central Otago and Upper Clutha confirmed anxiety was one of the consequences of pupils having internet-connected, or smart, phones.

Dunstan High School guidance counsellor Julie Williamson said phones definitely created anxiety in some pupils.

‘‘If a notification comes in they have to look at it, there’s anxiety between a notification coming in and having to respond. Some kids really struggle to put their phones away and teachers have to deal with that every day.’’

Teachers were especially keen to see phones banned at school, Mrs Williamson said.

‘‘Rob Cope is an advocate for it, so if we can get as many parents as possible along to this evening we’ll have a bit more of a backing from the community and that would be really helpful.’’

Children were also struggling to develop relationships, she said.

‘‘Out in the playground, instead of interacting with each other, they are sitting side-byside, on their phones. Relationship forming is a struggle for some kids.’’

They were also being exposed to pornography from an early age.

‘‘The average age now I think is about 7 when a young person is exposed to something unwanted online . . .They think that’s normal, they think that’s how relationships form and those kinds of actions are normal and so actually forming an intimate relationship becomes really difficult and they have sort of lost the idea of what boundaries are and what’s appropriate.’’

Hopefully, the children would see healthy relationships modelled at home by their parents or caregivers but for those that did not have that the problem was compounded, she said.

Online contact meant young people did not have to muster the courage to ask someone out on a date.

‘‘They send pictures toeach other to see if they want to go out with each other, like ‘send me a pic and I’ll decide’ and that’s not a face pic,’’ Mrs Williamson said.

St Gerard’s School principal Julie Flannery said while there had not been any alarming issues at the school she saw a need for some education with parents and children around cyber safety pre-Covid, when she became principal.

She was going to bring Mr Cope to Alexandra but Covid stopped that. The school instead took up his Informed and Empowered programme.

All children at St Gerard’s from year 1 to 8 had just completed the programme about how to stay safe online. It had resources for teachers and parents, as well as children, Mrs Flannery said.

Some of the information for teachers was a bit confronting but was the reality of the world we live in, she said.

The course helped parents be informed and armed with tools to help their children stay safe and know what to do if they were confronted with inappropriate material.

‘‘It’s a pretty scary world out there, in terms of cyber safety and what can happen. It can go wrong pretty quickly,’’ Mrs Flannery said.

Mount Aspiring College principal Nicola Jacobson said, like most schools, their pupils from year 7 used electronic devices in the classroom which were protected by the college’s filters that blocked some websites and social media. However, there were ways around that which some pupils had discovered.

While online interactions could create anxiety and cause pupils to lose focus in the classroom, there were positive aspects to it.

‘‘It can be a positive in terms of social connection — some socially anxious young people might be more comfortable connecting online than in person,’’ she said.

Cromwell College guidance counsellor Rachel Cassaidy said ‘‘brave, intentional parenting’’ was needed to stop the misuse of social media platforms.

‘‘We see the ongoing, ripple effect of misuse of online platforms.’’

Teacher Bridget Carter agreed.

‘‘Definitely, people are braver behind a screen. Keyboard warriors is what I like to call them.’’

Adults not understanding social media platforms were a problem as children used that to get around them, Miss Carter said.

Ms Cassaidy said the school was also hosting Rob Cope to increase the level of understanding for parents and caregivers.

‘‘They don’t realise that as soon as you’ve got connectivity you’ve got access to Tik Tok, you’ve got access to everything else. It also means they have access to unintentional porn. And that is to porn stuff that just pops up on those sites because it is insidious . . . and that can unexpectedly pop up on anything . . . and that means any [internet connected] device the parent has in the house, it can be Xbox, it can be anything they have innocently got their kids playing on, porn can pop up.’’

Parents often passed phones on to their children when they upgraded, which meant some young children had pretty high-spec phones, Ms Cassaidy said.

Cromwell College had banned phones for all but year 13 pupils this year. Year 13 pupils could only use their phones at the teacher’s discretion. If a child in any other year had a phone at school it was confiscated and had to be collected by a parent at the end of the day.

Miss Carter said many parents were unaware of the age restrictions on sites like Tik Tok, where users were supposed to be 13 years old and over.

‘‘Yet we have 11-year-olds coming to us who have been on Tik Tok for years. I guess parents think it’s kind of innocent, which it can be, but if you don’t know all the ins and outs you can come across some pretty horrific material on Tik Tok.’’

Ms Cassaidy said parents needed to step up.

‘‘I think it takes some really brave and intentional parenting to stand up and draw the line in the sand with regards to these minimum age limits. We have a lot of parents who say they don’t want their kids to be different, or ‘the others are doing [it] and we don’t want them to feel like they are missing out’ but it only takes a handful of really brave parents to say ‘no’ and then they can be part of the change . . .all it takes in one year group is a bunch of parents at primary school to say ‘no’ and decide they’re going to withhold access until the appropriate age or not give devices that have that level of connectivity . . . all we need is that brave intentional parenting.’’

Parents from the Cromwell primary schools are also invited to the Rob Cope evening and the college is offering childcare to ensure as many as possible can attend.

Our Kids Online
Film-maker and author of Our Kids Online Rob Cope will be speaking at Cromwell College auditorium on September 12 from 6.30pm to 8.30pm. Please let the school know if you would like childcare for the meeting. Alexandra Bowling Club, Centennial Avenue on September 13 from 7-9pm.