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Advice for schools on preparing for and responding to viral online harmful challenges and hoaxes

Instances of online challenges and hoaxes on social media have continued to rise, with social media providing a perfect platform for challenges and hoaxes to go viral.

In recent years, some online viral challenges and hoaxes have caused widespread concern about the potential to cause serious harm.

Understanding and responding carefully to these trends is essential to keeping learners safe online.

This advice aims to support schools in how they plan their approach and response to instances where harmful online challenges or hoaxes go viral. It is relevant for all staff within a school and particularly pertinent for designated safeguarding persons (DSPs) and the senior leadership team.

Online challenges generally involve users recording themselves taking part in a challenge, sharing it on social media and then encouraging or daring others to repeat the challenge. Online challenges come in many forms. Some can have a positive impact by promoting awareness of an issue or raising money for charity or research, such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge which helped to raise $115 million in 2014. However, other challenges can have negative or even harmful impacts, including content that upsets or shocks and sometimes even physically injures those who take part.

A hoax is intended to look truthful and can often take the form of an online scare story or a photograph, news article, video or meme. The ‘Digital Ghost Stories report examines recent examples of online scare stories that have gone viral and explores how organisations can unintentionally exacerbate the risks and impact of these instances. The report explains how issuing warnings and sharing information about a hoax can unintentionally raise awareness and curiosity that in turn increases traffic to the very content that is of concern.

It is important that whether the viral content is a challenge, rumoured or real, schools take the right measures and have the tools they need to enable them to support learners.

If your school becomes aware of or receives warnings about any online content relating to harmful online challenges or possible hoaxes, it is crucial that any actions you take avoid drawing attention to the harmful content.

The headteacher and DSP within your school should be notified in order to lead the school’s response. There is a ‘Further support’ section available at the end of this page.

When responding to challenges or hoaxes, the following should be considered.

Limit the spread

When online challenges or hoaxes are brought to your attention your first instinct may be to issue a warning about a new harmful online challenge or hoax. However, sharing such a message may unintentionally increase curiosity and drive more learners (and their parents and carers) to search for the harmful content.

Prevent panic

The nature of online challenges or hoaxes means that they can quickly become viral and cause a media frenzy. Therefore, it is important to prevent panic and make sure you have all the facts before taking any action so that you can support your learners effectively. The Professionals Online Safety Helpline provides free support on online safety issues to teachers and professionals who work with learners.

Avoid naming concerning or dangerous challenges

Naming a harmful online challenge or hoax to learners, parents and carers could run the risk of spreading the reach of the harmful content further. Focusing on the details of one specific challenge or hoax may be a missed opportunity to provide advice and guidance to learners and the wider school community on how to deal with any harmful online challenge or hoax and empower them in all areas of their online lives. Instead, provide advice and guidance that can be applied in the event of anything happening online that may worry, upset or offend learners.

Give learners opportunities to speak

It is essential that learners have the opportunity to talk to somebody they trust in school or elsewhere about anything that concerns them, including online issues. Online challenges and concerning content can bring up the need to talk about other concerning issues like self-harm and suicide so it is important that learners have access to the appropriate support.

Avoid showing any upsetting or scary content

Even when something does go viral online it does not mean that all learners have seen or heard of it. You can educate learners about the risks of online challenges and hoaxes without showing them any examples or giving explicit details. Instead, focus on key advice and strategies learners need to navigate any online risk.

Talk to learners about reporting and blocking

Social media, games and video platforms offer reporting and blocking tools which you can encourage learners to use. When making a report they should give as much context as possible when reporting the concerning post, message or account directly. You can find out more about how to make a report on Childnet’s website and the Report Harmful Content website.

Discuss peer pressure

One of the key issues raised over online challenges is that of peer pressure taking place through digital platforms. Learners can sometimes be drawn into challenges because it is what all their friends are doing or seem to be doing and saying ‘no’ can seem like a very hard thing to do.

The Peer sexual abuse, exploitation and harmful sexual behaviour guidance is intended to help education settings prevent and address instances of peer pressure where sexual harassment or abuse is a factor.

There are also resources available that can support you to promote ethical behaviour online among learners and to provide them with strategies for managing their online environment to minimise the risk of viewing offensive content.

Highlight sources of support

Ensure learners, parents and carers all know where they can go to for support. This could be directing them to the appropriate members of staff in school as well as signposting to key helplines. You can find a list of support and report services including helplines for learners and their parents and carers in our support services section on Hwb.

Engage with parents and carers appropriately

Engage with parents and carers about online safety risks and follow up any information you give to learners while ensuring you do not share upsetting content or name concerning or dangerous challenges.

Consider having discussions with learners about the themes surrounding this content, such as peer pressure, mental wellbeing, and being safe online.

Be prepared

While each viral challenge or hoax needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, there are ways you can prepare to ensure that your school is able to take measured and considered actions and respond effectively to any future viral challenges or hoaxes.

Develop a whole-school approach

It is recommended that you consider and include how to respond to online challenges, hoaxes and other harmful content within your safeguarding policy in line with ‘Keeping learners safe’, statutory safeguarding in education guidance. All staff should be aware and fully understand this policy and how the school will respond.

You should also consider including it in other relevant school policies such as behaviour, online safety and school website information.

The ‘Recommended web filtering standards for schools’ guidance provides advice to schools and local authorities on recommended approaches to web filtering within educational settings. However, it is important to understand the limitations of filtering with regard to harmful online challenges and online hoaxes.

The Health and Well-being Area of Learning and Experience can help learners understand the important role of social influences on their lives. These influences are comprised of rules, social norms, attitudes and values that are created and reinforced by different social groups. It is through interaction with social groups that we experience these influences.

Learners will need to engage critically with these social influences within their own culture, as well as those of others, in order to understand how norms and values develop. This can enable them to understand how their own behaviours, relationships and experiences are shaped.

Relationships and sexuality education (RSE) will play an important role for the safeguarding and protection of all learners in Wales. Schools will have the potential to create safe and empowering environments that build upon learners’ own formal and informal learning and experiences, offline and online. RSE should be part of a whole-school approach and effectively integrated and coordinated across the curriculum.

Teaching learners about online challenges, hoaxes and harmful content will support learners’ ability both to respond should such an incidence arise and to navigate the online world in a safe and responsible way.

The draft RSE statutory guidance and code was published for consultation in May 2021, and final guidance will be published in December 2021.

The Digital Competence Framework (DCF) is available to support schools to embed digital competence across all areas of learning and experience. It enables learners to develop the set of skills, knowledge and attitudes to be confident, creative and critical in their use of technologies and systems, including how to keep themselves safe online.

In situations where harmful online challenges or content targets school staff, it is important to ensure that the school has appropriate procedures in place to respond and that staff can access the support they need. These incidents may involve content intended to harass or bully staff, or hoax social media accounts created by learners. The content may be intended as a prank or joke, however, for staff it can have serious impact on their well-being and professional reputation.

Any instances of inappropriate behaviour should be managed in accordance with the school’s behaviour policy.

As a practitioner, if you experience an incident of harassment or bullying online, you should consider the following:

Don’t respond directly

This will avoid provoking posting of further harmful content and will help limit the spread of the content.

Gather evidence and report

Take screen shots of the content including any details such as usernames and report any instances of harmful content to the platform.

Seek advice

Speak to a senior leader in your school to ask for support and establish next steps in line with your school policies.

The Professionals Online Safety Helpline can help with issues concerning your reputation as well as with a range of other online safety issues. They have fast-track access to social media providers and can mediate on your behalf, where necessary. Call 0344 381 4772 or email helpline@saferinternet.org.uk.

You may also wish to contact your relevant Trade Union for advice and support.

If you find any harmful content, you can also report it on the Report Harmful Content website.

Challenges and hoaxes

Supporting learners

Information to share with learners

Supporting practitioners