Working parents of school-age children have experienced significant upheaval in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tasked with having to be parents, full-time employees, full-time co-educators and a host of other roles simultaneously, they are predictably struggling with the myriad of challenges they face. The schools that educate their children are also facing a host of issues – from deploying and supporting devices for distance learning to rapidly standing up the necessary support infrastructure – all at once.

Many parents and schools, however, are not fully aware that another widespread “pandemic” has been going on for some time, and it may be the most dangerous issue currently affecting the children they both care for. That is the pandemic of cyber risk.

“Cyber risk” is an umbrella term for a host of perilous factors for children including cyber-bullying, online predators, malware/phishing scams, social media disorder and inappropriate content. While parents and schools are generally aware of these problems individually, they may not realize how widespread the exposure has been to their children. According to a February 2020 study published by the DQ Institute, the numbers are sobering:

  • Almost two-thirds of children aged 8-12 surveyed are exposed to one or more forms of cyber risk including:
    • 45% exposed to cyberbullying
    • 29% exposed to violent and sexual content
    • 28% are exposed to cyber threats
    • 17% experience risky contact such as offline meetings with strangers

Amazingly, these stats are only reflective of the pre-COVID-19 landscape, when many children were exempt from online activities due to lack of computer access at home, and even those that did had much more limited screen time and spent most of their weekdays physically in buildings where they were directly monitored. Now that schools are scrambling to equip all of their children with devices/connectivity and parents are struggling to balance their many roles in shelter-in-place environments, one can only imagine how these risk factors have grown.

“A major blind spot a school can have is not knowing what’s happening in their students’ online worlds.” notes Jeff Reistad, Senior Vice President of Bark for Schools, a comprehensive filtering/monitoring service for student safety. “By monitoring school-issued accounts, a school’s administration can help detect serious issues like cyberbullying, threats of violence, and depression early on. In 2019, 74% of targeted school violence incidents were preceded by concerning behaviors online. When schools can identify potential issues in the digital space beforehand, they stand a better chance of preventing them from becoming a devastating reality.”

As distance learning becomes the “new normal” for schools – whether on a part-time or full-time basis – it’s clear that children must increasingly participate in a potentially dangerous digital world. It’s critical that the means of protection extend beyond just tools and services, something that leading security suites like Bark take into account.

Continuing on, Reistad notes that Bark “offers schools the ability to share responsibility for addressing alerts with parents and guardians. School staff isn’t always available to respond during time-sensitive situations, and our free Parent Portal enables families to get after-hours notifications. Families are often in a better place to take action and help intervene in the event of an emergency.”

Ultimately, crossing the digital divide is just the first step in ensuring that we make education equitable and effective for all students. Just as important is guaranteeing the safety of our children as they spend more of their lives in this wild, everchanging digital world. Both parents and schools must work together going forward to ensure that they are aligned in selecting the right tools to empower them to keep students safe online.

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