“Straight up life”: How we can help students navigate their online world

Kaitlyn Martin, University of Otago

Within weeks of an NZ intermediate school banning social media and asking parents to do the same at home, the Ministry for Women along with Netsafe have published a report indicating that a social media ban is the exact opposite of the kind of strategy that students suggest would help them navigate an increasingly social and digital world.

CaptureInsights Into Digital Harm: The Online Lives of New Zealand Girls and Boys is the first report of a two-stage research project aiming to describe 16-17 year old NZ students’ perceptions of life in a digital world, their negative online experiences, and possible solutions to digital harm. This research has huge potential to influence policy around the challenges that children and adults all face regarding digital technologies and social media usage. Whether an educator, parent, or student, below we draw on this new report to highlight strategies that can help you develop safer online lives for students.

Gendered differences

The report described key differences in the ways that girls and boys interact online. A few of these differences are highlighted in the graphic below.

boys vs girls .jpg

While these statements may not be true for every student, they give likely tendencies and could be taken into consideration when developing gender-specific strategies for dealing with online harm. These trends could also be used to spark open and honest discussions with students or children about their online habits. However, since the report only considered binary gender differences (boys vs girls), the second phase of this research project may better reflect a whole-school approach if the perspectives of LGBT+ students and their concerns were specifically incorporated into the study.

Experiences common across genders

While there are gendered differences in some of the problems students face, opportunities for widespread strategies can be developed from identifying the experiences that the majority of students experience and agree on. Regardless of gender, students in the study reported that in their online lives they:

  • Feel in control of what they choose to see and interact with online.
  • Do not know how their personal information is used, and are not worried about this.
  • Are most often harmed by those close to them rather than by random people or content.
  • Learn about being safe online by themselves and from friends or siblings, more than from teachers or parents.

While there are real dangers out there that students apparently fail to consider, NZ students do see themselves as confident online users, and not as the ‘naïve innocents’ their parents or educators may view them as. The survey indicates that students feel that they can independently assess who and what to interact with online and, if needed, obtain safety information from peers (instead of teachers or parents, whose advice is often inaccessible, inadequate, or outdated).

What is most worrisome, however, is that the peers they often turn to for guidance are also the ones who are most likely to inflict harmful experiences online. This means that cyber-safety training that restricts itself to updating passwords or being aware of ‘stranger-danger’ drastically misrepresents the realities of the challenges students face online.

Suggested ways forward

With the new report’s fresher picture of how students view themselves and their online lives, we can begin to develop strategies to prevent online harm that are more relevant to what students really need. Hopefully this will ultimately improve our young people’s safety and wellbeing.

Despite their disappointment with the forms of help currently available, there was a strong positive focus from students on the importance of pursuing strategies which prevent negative online experiences – rather than schools spending valuable time and resources on resolving unfortunate outcomes once they occur.

As an alternative to banning technology use in general or social media in particular, schools and parents might try developing online-management strategies with their students/children that stem from the following principles (summarized from the report).

Students need to learn appropriate online behaviour early – ideally before Years 7-8 (ages 12-13). Students reported that the times they were most likely to experience online harm were actually their intermediate school years, after they had left the security of primary school but before they knew themselves and the world better. This age bracket between primary and high school has always been one in which young people need more support as they navigate the complex social pressures of adolescence. Just like making new friends, developing their own interests, and becoming independent, proper social media usage is a new skill that needs to be learned as part of healthy adolescent development.

Students need to develop a sense that respect is important in both their online and offline lives. As educators and parents, we are constantly seeking to help our students become the best people and members of society they can be – but we must recognise that this now extends to respecting themselves and others through their behaviour online. The report suggests that we can develop this understanding in students by having regular discussions with them that incorporate online and digital contexts for the life skills we already teach our kids daily. For example, we can talk to young people regularly about:

The best people to help are young, relatable, engaging, and informed. While it is not necessary to have all of these qualities, students will respond best to people who show an overall respect for students’ self-efficacy and their digital lives, as well as those who understand what students are going through socially, and are up to date technologically. As one student from the report humorously explained,

“…all the cyber safety we got taught to us was by our home room teacher. But our home teacher also couldn’t open Word documents.”

Concluding thoughts

While the Auckland school’s recent plea to ban social media at school and at home goes against all of the strategies suggested here, it does bring to attention the simple fact that schools feel something must be done. With the new Digital Technologies curriculum and the rise of Bring Your Own Device programmes encouraging digital integration throughout New Zealand schools, these issues aren’t going away. Hopefully this new research report will spark discussion throughout New Zealand in staff rooms, at dinner tables, and maybe even online about how we can help our children become upright digital citizens and prevent online harm.

One student in the study stated that because everyone is on social media and the internet nowadays,

“There’s no separate cyberbullying or bullying, it’s straight up bullying.”

If we want to help our students and children learn to navigate their online lives, we need to start by accepting the reality they’re living in:  There’s no separate online life or life, it’s straight up life.

For further reading, resources, and research on developing strategies for your school, kura, or family to prevent online harm, please consider the following resources in addition to the articles linked within the post above:


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