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Safeguarding against online harm

Guidance on safeguarding students against online harm during periods of remote learning

Online learning and distance learning offer exciting opportunities to continue providing a high standard of teaching and interaction with our students when they cannot be on campus. However, it is not without challenges. One challenge that we must all consider is ensuring that our students are safe and not at risk of harm when they are working online. Therefore, it is paramount that all staff remain mindful of their safeguarding duties and where they and their students can find support.  

Safeguarding is the duty to promote the welfare of our students and to protect them from harm. This includes all forms of harm, including those covered by the Prevent duty.  

How can we support our students?  

Illegal and inappropriate content is widespread online and as our students spend more time alone on the internet there is an increased risk that they may access this type of content. This may be due to a lack of security on devices used at home. For more advice and tools to help students and staff stay secure online, please visit ISD’s Stay Secure webpages or email isg@ucl.ac.uk .  

Legal forms of online behaviours and content can also cause serious harm. The internet can be used to harass, bully or intimidate, especially people in vulnerable groups. All staff and students should be encouraged to use Report + Support, if they feel that they are being harassed, bullied or intimidated whether this be on an online platform or on campus.  

As staff and students interact online and at distance, it is crucial that the welfare, wellbeing and safety of our students is maintained.  If you become concerned about a student’s behaviour, wellbeing or safety, you can use the Student of Concern process to raise those concerns. The Student of Concern form will then be reviewed by the Student Support and Wellbeing team and appropriate action will be taken.   

The Student Support and Wellbeing team offer a range of confidential services and support for all of our students. There are plenty of resources and advice on their website which it can be useful to signpost students towards either if they come to you with a concern or to ensure that they know where to find support in case they encounter an issue whilst studying at distance or online.  

Behaviours and Vulnerability Factors  

When we are in a situation where we are not seeing our students face to face on a regular basis, it can be more difficult to ascertain whether they are interacting with UCL and their studies in the usual manner or whether they may be in a situation that is a cause for concern. However, it is important that we maintain an awareness and understanding of some of the behaviours and vulnerabilities that may indicate a concerning situation.  

These behaviours and vulnerability factors are summarised below. However, please bear in mind that this is not an exhaustive list and it may be unlikely that one of these on their own would be a cause for concern. It is likely that you would start to build up a picture of your concerns through a selection of the behaviours or vulnerabilities below, in relation to the relevant context and situation of a particular student. It is important to use professional judgement and appropriate understanding of our students.  

Behaviours  

  1. Using angry or argumentative language in interactions  

  1. Acting in a difficult or uncooperative manner either in group discussions, team projects or one to one meetings  

  1. Asking inappropriate questions to peers or staff 

  1. A lack of engagement, such as not logging into online teaching, not responding to correspondence, not participating in online discussions or not submitting work

  1. A sudden change in their typical behaviour  

  1. Becoming more active on social media and perhaps sharing inappropriate or controversial content 

  1. Showing an interest in conspiracy theories and sharing them with their peers  

  1. Unusual interaction with their peers such as being rude, inappropriate, over familiar or not contacting those who they would normally speak to on a regular basis  

Vulnerability Factors 

  1. Becoming isolated from their friends and family 

  1. Lacking a sense of community or belonging  

  1. Spending more time on social media and online groups  

  1. Feeling under threat  

  1. Seeking a sense of understanding or acknowledgement  

The above behaviours and vulnerability factors may indicate or lead to many different wellbeing, welfare or safety issues. However, they can also be an indication of concerns that may be related to our Prevent duty.  

Acting on Concerns  

You may want to check in with students more regularly online than you perhaps might face to face. This is good practice to help students continue to feel supported and part of the UCL community. 

If you notice any or a combination of the above behaviours or vulnerabilities, it is important to check in with someone about your concerns. This could be catching up with the student to find out more or speaking with a colleague about your concerns. Professional judgement and appropriate consideration should be taken when deciding who is best to speak to.  

If after checking, you still feel that there is a genuine cause for concern, it is important to share those concerns. This should be done through the Student of Concern process.  

Case Study 

A personal tutor notices that a student is not engaging regularly with online teaching, has not responded to correspondence over a prolonged period, students close to them have reported that they have not heard from them and when they have participated their interaction has been abrupt or uncooperative.  

What action should be taken?  

Firstly, it may be appropriate for the personal tutor to check in with the student, ask them generally about how they are and whether there is any support that they need. Alternatively or additionally, the personal tutor may want to ask other teaching staff from the student’s course if they have noticed similar behaviour or have any further information.  

After initial conversations with the student and colleagues, it becomes clear that the student is struggling to maintain engagement with their course online due to increased caring duties at home during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as struggling with anxiety.  

The personal tutor is able to signpost the student to relevant support services from Student Support and Wellbeing.  

If there are continued concerns, the personal tutor may feel it is still appropriate to complete the Student of Concern form. This can then be followed up by the Student Support and Wellbeing team.