“A picture is worth a thousand words” as the saying goes, so it is no accident that image search services like Google Images and Bing Image search are so popular amongst schools: an unlimited library of content that adds meaning and impact to publications and presentations.
And there lies the dilemma. By dipping randomly into this bran-tub of exciting content, occasionally you are going to stumble across a bad apple. Something that you didn’t want to see or read and which often represents an issue of duty of care for professionals. After all, parents expect schools to be safe places, don’t they?
How do we strike the balance between ensuring children and young people are empowered to use these resources and still meet our safeguarding obligations?
Like most solutions it’s a combination of technical intervention and education: providing appropriate conditions for searching; establishing clear responses when issues occur and building the resilience of children and young people to minimise harm.
This article explores:
Understanding search technology
Smarter filtering and control
Providing the right environment
Sharpening up search skills
OMG! What do we do now?
Education and the bigger picture
This article covers:
Image searching: the technology and the services
Despite our expectations, many of these engines have no real way of being able to actually analyse the image itself: instead they pick up on contextual clues (captions etc) from the rest of the page on which the image is found and take a good guess that it might be something connected with your search. It says a lot about the sophistication of the technology that most of the time it gets it bang-on right.
Of course, with an image search, the results that come back are “thumbnails” of the image on results pages that are often very long. The closest results are at the top … but three scrolls down however and you are getting into serious “guess territory”.
The length of the pages also make it difficult for filters to capture every single inappropriate thumbnail. It is more likely that those tricky images will appear as you scroll further down away from the top results.
Knowing this, a good strategy may be deciding that if the image you are looking for isn’t in the first scroll, then you probably need to refine your search. More on this later.
What about blocking all the bad stuff?
SWGfL, like other schools’ internet services, apply essential safety and security layers to school internet connections to block, log and report on both illegal and inappropriate content.
Images are filtered by SWGfL on the data each image contains. In the past this would have included the web address and if that’s on our blocked list we filter it; easy. However recent changes to the way image search results are delivered, means that the url is not present; just a random character string, which to be honest could be anything. So the filtering doesn’t pick it up and it skates through. Funnily enough, exactly because of this, appropriate images can sometimes be blocked if the random characters contain profanities by accident ;
11ifU_q3vFglgc4BfuK7-xceVOMGvDCRpQSiewa4P1NJgtY for example (Still looking?)
Most SWGfL schools have complete control over the sorts of content that can be accessed too (with the exception of illegal content of course) through their own filtering dashboard. (If you are not sure how to do this then the service desk at firstname.lastname@example.org can help or visit the SWGfL Filtering Help Page). This is much quicker and affects a change immediately. Sadly, it is a difficult thing with which to keep pace as there is the potential for new images to proliferate daily. No filtering mechanism is completely infallible.
Whilst Google is an unmoderated image library it does have integrated filtering, more commonly known as ‘Safe Search’. This can be turned on through the browser and locked if necessary. It can even be applied to mobile devices too. (You can find information on Safe Search and other Google Safety Tools HERE)
Google Safe Search is set to on as default to all SWGfL connections; schools have to opt out if they wish to view search results that do not filter out ‘explicit results’.
SWGfL work closely with Google to feedback on the effectiveness of safe search and whilst generally results are good, one or two ‘inappropriate results’ have been returned and we block these as they’re found as well as report them directly to Google – some are just new and Google simply don’t know about them so if you come across them you can tell us about them and we can block them. If you send the URL to email@example.com we’ll add them to the list.
Just like Google, Bing is an unmoderated search engine, which has settings for safer searching that can be applied not only to each incidence of the browser but by registering with Bing for Schools. can be managed by an adminstrator across a school network. Bing image search was blocked by SWGfL (along with Yahoo Images) following an issue with inappropriate thumbnail images being returned. Schools of course are free to unfilter Bing and Yahoo and Safe search settings can be disabled. Register with Bing for Schools here.
It is worth bearing in mind that these “Safe Search” mechanisms should really be termed “Safer Search” as, despite the sophistication of technical interventions, they can never be 100% reliable.
Their effectiveness however improves when combined with other strategies.
The Right Environment in which to Learn
Of course this term “inappropriate”, used when defining the suitability of content, is a bit of a “moveable feast”. It’s parameters are defined by age, development, context and purpose: whilst you may not want a six year old to see the damaging effects of an STD on the human form, it may very well be an integral component of the SRE or Biology education of an older student.
Resource and content are age-appropriate and access to the right resource requires some thought and consideration.
There are a number of technological solutions that can provide differentiated access to and monitoring of online content and can be additional layers to your filtering solution in school. Examples of this are Smoothwall, eSafe, Lightspeed, Impero and Securus . These do cost money and require the right technical support to sustain and also the right responses to the data they produce. However, used well, they allow the opportunity for managed internet access that of course includes image content.
Other strategies may be access to curated image resources rather than open internet image searches.
SWGfL advocate the use of moderated image libraries such as the SWGfL Media Gallery which can be accessed via www.swiggle.org.uk a free safer search engine aimed at key stage 2 students. But resources also include image libraries like: British Library Image Collection; National Archives Image Library; the National Education Network Gallery plus a whole list on Wikipedia here.
For younger children you may want to provide a bookmarked image search that you have prepared and let them choose from your results; a palette of teacher-curated images for them to use.
Bookmarking these resources to be used as part of a lesson plan may actually wean users away from random unsophisticated searching that Google Images encourage. It may also add clarity to the issues around copyright and intellectual property that are often cloudy when using other open search engines.
Right tools for the right job.
Typing “stud” into Google Images is going to return a wealth of imagery some of which is guaranteed to be on the edge of decency; all for the want of a picture of a fastener.
There a number of ways to improve the accuracy of returns in Google Image search which lowers the risk of inappropriate or unwanted images:
Choose effective keywords: Remember to think about the words you think will be in your desired results page. Determine the most important words in your search as well as potential synonyms.
Be aware of words that have a broad set of meanings and can be misinterpreted. Think how the “Carry On” team would react to a double-entendre like knob?
Look out for spelling errors. these can throw a search right off key with more chance of finding material you were not searching for,
Word order matters. Small words (a, the) matter, like when they distinguish between two similar entities. Punctuation that matters: $, #, and + (when used as C++, Google+) Punctuation that Google ignores: ¶, £, €, ©, ®, ÷, §, %, (), @, ?, !
Use quotes to search for a phrase. Quotes glue words together; there can be additional words before or after the phrase, but the phrase will always stay together in the results
Click on Search Tools Tab: Here, you can filter results by different categories like Size, Colour. Type, Usage Rights etc
Use the minus sign (-): Eliminate irrelevant results.There must be a space before the minus sign.There must not be a space between the minus sign and the word you want to eliminate.Example: horse -fence
Combine operators for stronger searches. Operators can be placed anywhere in the query without affecting the results. For example: [black cats site:com] is equivalent to [site:com black cats] More information HERE on Search Operators
Use Google Advanced Search: which gives a huge range of options. Great to use for finding royalty free images for your own publications. Information on Google Advanced Search HERE
Search by image: Visit images.google.com, or any Images results page, and click the camera icon in the search box. Enter an image URL for an image hosted on the web or upload an image from your computer. The search engine will try to match the characteristics with other online content.
Combinations of these strategies prove very powerful in getting straight to the content you want without having to deal with the dross.
But what if bad stuff gets through?
To be realistic, it is not a case of “if” but “when”.
As our use of online resources expands almost exponentially, the opportunities for stumbling across inappropriate content increases too. Schools demonstrate real duty of care in providing safe online environments for their pupils and students, certainly overwhelmingly safer than most home access can ever effectively achieve.
And yet …
So what might you ensure happens in your school?
Ensure the child is OK. Obvious I know but often overlooked in the ensuing panic.
Whole school approach: when an incident occurs everybody should know what to do, whether that is staff or pupils? Classroom assistants? Meal time assistants looking after a class on wet play? There is a consistent response and that needs clear staff development.
Encourage and praise pupils to report difficult content. Establish what that means; if it makes them embarrassed, upset, hurt, angry or sad then tell someone. And praise them for bringing their problem to you.
Clear expectations for children Turn the screen off but not the device.Turn a laptop to face the wall. Place the device face down. Very young children may want to use the CEOP Hector browser button which can be found here at CEOP ThinkUKnow then get help from an adult.
Isolating content. Staff should be aware how to record a URL for technicians to block or report centrally or to capture a browser screenshot to use as evidence for parents.
Escalate reporting of any suspected illegal content by seeking advice from the police. It’s unusual but may occur.
Rationalise your incident management. SWGfL provides clear interactive flowcharts on how to manage a whole range of online safety incidents in the Incident Response Tool part of the BOOST suite of online safety services. We also provide flowcharts as part of our free independently-audited Online Safety Policy Templates which can be found here.
Provide the right reporting routes for children to tell you if they have encountered distressing material. It might not always be easy to talk to a teacher particularly if the child feels at fault. Use anonymous letter boxes, anonymous online reporting mechanisms like SWGfL Whisper™, peer mentoring… any system that adds additional intelligence.
Move quickly to report to parents preferably by asking to see them to share the content and your response with them. Having parents onside is critical: you would want them to voice their concerns directly to you rather than the local press. It is worth too having a template prepared for such incidents for the specific parents but also to send out to remind parents and families of online risk and how to intervene. Example templates can be found here.
Act as an advice hub for parents with difficulties in dealing with online issues. If you can’t ameliorate it yourself then use the free service available to all schools and education professionals from the UK Safer Internet Centre the Professionals Online Safety Helpline. It provides a reliable and robust escalation route for you and your school but also builds confidence in parents that you have the well-being of their children at the heart of what you do.
These skills don’t happen by accident
Finally, it is worth considering that despite the varying layers of technical intervention, the most effective route is through education and monitoring to influence the behaviour of pupils and hence decrease their vulnerability.
Just as with any other aspect of behaviour management in school,; revisiting sanctions and accountability, reporting issues when they arise and having parents support you in that process is often more culturally effective than technical intervention.
We’ve developed a whole range of online safety tools, one of which is our multi-award winning 360 degree safe tool for schools that supports and underpins our filtering. We recommend that schools foster a holistic approach to online safety that develops the right culture beyond the school and that goes beyond filtering.
We have also produced a free Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum for Schools with our partners Common Sense Media, complete with long/medium term plans and detailed lesson plans that run from FS to Year 10 and beyond.
The teachers plans and students books are also available on iTunes.
Specific lessons that deal with the inappropriate searching / dealing with indecent images can be found at:
So are we going to be OK?
Probably, yeah! Depends on whether the systems you implement allow you to find that right balance between the efficacy of the resource and keeping children out of harm’s way.
Risk, remember is an important component of how we learn. The child that puts their hand up in your lesson is risking being wrong; looking stupid in front of their peers. Yet we encourage it as we know it is vital to move forward. We provide an physical environment where risk is managed.
OFSTED in their Safe Use of New Technologies report suggest that schools who lock everything down indiscriminately do not provide the right environment in which young people can learn to manage and identify risk. But it often proves a difficult thing to loosen up… but by not doing so we are not building that independence and resilience this generation need to keep themselves happy and safe when technology or we as adults are not there to do so.
And that means we need to provide an online space fit for purpose… and let’s face it, they’ll be doing it without you if you can’t be part of it.
Surely, that would be missing the whole point?