Harmful online challenges and hoaxes


Online challenges and hoaxes can be harmful to pupils and present a risk to your employment as a teacher.

The Department for Education (DfE), in collaboration with partners in the UK Council for Internet Safety Education subgroup and the Samaritans, has developed advice for schools and colleges to support their approach to harmful online challenges and online hoaxes.

In this article, we provide a summary of the guidance from the DfE (which is aimed at school leaders) and link to further information on this topic.

What can teachers do to prepare for the next harmful online hoax

The DfE explains that Keeping Children Safe in Education sets out that an effective approach to online safety empowers a school to protect and educate the whole school community in their use of technology, and establish mechanisms to identify, intervene in and escalate incidents where appropriate.

Your school should consider embedding an effective approach to planning for, and responding to, online challenges and online hoaxes in relevant policies such as:

  • Child protection
  • Behaviour
  • Staff behaviour
  • Mobile devices

Your school should help pupils, parents, carers and staff be clear, in advance, what your institution is likely to do when a harmful online challenge or online hoax begins to circulate.

Keeping children safe in education sets out that schools and colleges should have appropriate filters and monitoring systems in place. It is important to understand the limitations of filtering with regard to harmful online challenges and online hoaxes. Talk to your filtering provider on a regular basis.

Most children enjoy unrestricted online access via 3G, 4G and 5G on phones, tablets and smart devices. Your mobile devices policy should reflect this risk, and it should be recognised when considering how best to teach your children about online safety and how you will respond to harmful online challenges and online hoaxes.

Consider how best to teach your children about online safety, in a way that is appropriate for their age and stage of development.

Children should have the opportunity to learn to critically identify and respond to dangerous or harmful content. Schools should always be aware that some children, young people (and adults) will struggle to identify harmful online challenges and online hoaxes.

It is therefore important that institutions provide safe and open spaces for children and young people to ask questions and share concerns about what they experience online without being made to feel foolish or blamed.

This should form part of your safeguarding approach (in line with Keeping children safe in education).

You should make clear the avenues that children and young people have to access support if they are curious, worried or upset.

Posters setting out who to go to with a concern (be it online or offline) within and outside your establishment can help. It is important that if children and young people do report something, they feel confident it will be taken seriously and acted upon appropriately. The best interests of the child or young person must always come first.

It is important to encourage parents and carers to discuss online safety at home and to talk to their child about what they do online.

If a child raises concerns about a harmful online challenge directly?

Consider the best way to speak to individual children or, where appropriate, in classes (but, as above, be mindful of needlessly exposing all children and young people to something they may not even be aware of or concerned about).

While acknowledging it, if it has been raised directly, avoid overly focusing on whatever the latest harmful online challenge or online hoax might be. 

Focus on what good online behaviour looks like, what to do if you see something upsetting online and who and where to report it. Fact checking by the designated safeguarding lead (DSL), may help dispel myths if children and young people are identifying that they are particularly concerned that the latest online challenge or online hoax has put them or their friends at risk.

As per Keeping children safe in education, if you are worried a child or young person has been harmed, or is at risk of harm, you should report it to the local children’s social care.

Further support and information

If you are an Edapt subscriber and you have been involved in an online hoax you can contact us for further support and advice.

Was this article helpful?

The information contained within this article is not a complete or final statement of the law.
While Edapt has sought to ensure that the information is accurate and up-to-date, it is not responsible and will not be held liable for any inaccuracies and their consequences, including any loss arising from relying on this information. This article may contain information sourced from public sector bodies and licensed under the Open Government Licence. If you are an Edapt subscriber with an employment-related issue, please contact us and we will be able to refer you to one of our caseworkers.