Internet Privacy Lessons and Safety Practices for K-12 Students

Most students and teachers use the internet every day, both in the classroom and recreationally. Some teachers take for granted how much their students know about the web, internet privacy and safety. They’re impressed at how quickly students learn how to use new software tools and games. 

But web usage goes well beyond trying out a new math game. Students of all ages share videos online, exchange passwords with friends, and talk to strangers on the web. At any age — even adulthood — these behaviors can be dangerous. 

Evaluate what your students need to know about internet safety and privacy as you develop a digital citizenship curriculum. Use this guide to create age-appropriate lesson plans for K-12 learners. 

Internet Privacy and Safety: Elementary School Students

Infants and toddlers know how to use iPads and navigate their parents’ smartphones. This means your elementary-age students are never too young to learn about the internet. However, it can be challenging to decide what your students need to know and how much you should tell them. 

As you develop your lesson plans, consider the types of threats that kids can encounter when they are online. The team at Panda Security says there are three key concerns to keep in mind: 

  • Strangers. This is the first threat that most people think of when discussing online privacy and children. Think about predators and how they present themselves as harmless to kids. 
  • Peers. Online threats can come from classmates and friends. Cyberbullying can start at a young age when kids are growing up with the internet. 
  • Themselves. Kids can download suspicious files or click on dangerous links that install malware or ransomware onto their devices. Teaching internet safety means learning about phishing scams from a young age. 

From here, you can divide your internet lessons into three parts. This ensures you discuss web safety in a comprehensive and organized manner.

Alternatively, you can also build your lessons around the Four Cs of Digital Safety which highlight areas of concern for young learners. Florence Martin, professor of learning, design, and technology at North Carolina State University, explains what each of the Cs means: 

  • Content. Students need to access websites that are age-appropriate while avoiding pages and information that could be harmful to them. 
  • Conduct. This covers how kids interact with others online and includes topics like cyberbullying. 
  • Contact. This relates to the people that kids talk to online, whether they are strangers or peers. 
  • Contract. The last part covers the types of agreements that kids agree to when they download apps or sign up for websites. These range from service agreements to accepting tracking cookies. 

There is a lot of overlap between the three threats by Panda Security and the 4 Cs of Digital Safety. Both lists are meant to help educators organize their lessons while ensuring they cover all aspects of online privacy and security. 

Lessons about internet privacy don’t have to be scary — especially for young learners. Kids learn the colors of traffic lights in fun ways because this knowledge is useful in life. They don’t need to see pictures of car accidents to emphasize the importance of this knowledge. The same can be said for internet safety. The web is a tool that kids will use. Hiding passwords and personal information is a best practice that everyone needs to know. 

“Too often, our fears about online safety and screen time overshadow the positive potential these online spaces hold for our kids,” write Candice Odgers and Jacqueline Nesi for The Hechinger Report. “This is a missed opportunity. Young adolescents are not getting lost on their devices; they are going online to learn, explore and socialize in ways that can promote healthy development.”

With that in mind, consider the activities you can bring to your classroom. Primary school counselor Neeti Sarkar at Bright Futures includes scavenger hunts for online data and quizzes about cyber safety. Another activity is to have students trace their feet on a piece of paper, then add the logos or write out all of the apps and websites they visit. This is their digital footprint — in actual footprint form — and highlights just how far their personal information can travel across the internet.

Girl at home using laptop and headphones; internet privacy lessons concept

Internet Privacy and Safety: Middle School Students 

As kids get older, you can start to get into more nuanced discussions about web use. Middle school students are trying to find their place in their world — and that includes their place on the web. 

“Kids are already learning about personal responsibility and etiquette in their lives, and internet safety is a part of that,” says Damon Torgerson, owner of the professional development platform Alludo. “Kids need to learn what behavior is appropriate in which context.” 

Start your middle school lessons about internet safety with a discussion about how people communicate online versus in-person. The team at Everyday Speech has prompts and worksheets you can use to lead these talks. Ask your student how non-verbal cues like tone and body language change the meaning of a sentence. 

You can also bring up emojis, gifs, and internet slang to show how adding an “lol” to a text can change the tone and meaning. These conversations can show how internet conflict can arise and how cyberbullying can seem harmless if there are a few emojis but is actually hurtful. 

Middle school students are old enough to learn that comments, photos, and videos can live on the internet forever. Just because they delete something doesn’t mean it wasn’t saved somewhere else or that a peer didn’t take a screenshot of the content. 

“Once this content is online, it’s very hard to get rid of and can become part of your child’s permanent online reputation,” writes the team at the Raising Children Network. “Also, photos and other content can be altered or shared without your child’s permission.” 

While this message addresses parents, teachers can bring this up and highlight examples of content that was never deleted or photos and videos that were misused by others. 

“When we were growing up we didn’t have these kinds of issues but now one photo can be sent to 100 kids within a matter of minutes, it could be an embarrassing photo and that can ruin a kid’s life one way or the other,” says Dan Dawson, an Iowa state senator. “Whether it be securing our phones, thinking about what we’re sending and having good strong passwords, those are all things to help keep our kids safe and it’ll be great and tangible lessons for down the road too as they grow to be adults.”

Upset teen holding smartphone and sitting on the school floor, head in hands; internet privacy lessons concept

Internet Privacy and Safety: High School Students

It helps to focus on the “why” behind internet privacy and safety, rather than the “how,” with high school students. Most students know how to change their settings and might even know more than you do about navigating them. Instead, try to get your students to open up about how they use social media and the risky behaviors they might engage in. 

For a good starting resource, check out the Q&A with Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association. He reviews some useful questions like, “Does social media mirror the real world?” and “How do I know when information online is true?” that you can use to lead your classroom discussions. Even starting with a high-level question can be useful for getting students to open up and share their opinions. 

This is a great way to talk about online trends and popular apps like TikTok. Schools have been ravaged by TikTok challenges and trends that are harmful to both students and school property. It can be frustrating dealing with kids who continue to mimic what they see on the internet. 

Christine Elgersma, a senior editor at Common Sense Media, says teachers should avoid lecturing students when it comes to using TikTok and participating in challenges. Instead, she recommends taking an “inquiry-based approach,” asking students why they would do something like that and what pushes them to post on social media in the first place. 

“Resist the urge to dismiss and diminish it as stupid because that causes [students to think], ‘you don’t get us, you old fart,’” says Elgersma. “Trust that they know how stupid these things are.”

You can also gear your internet safety lesson plans around navigating the web as an adult. You can tie in media literacy concepts so students can identify clickbait or biased information. The lesson plans you develop can dive deeper into identifying phishing scams and even determining if someone is a catfish. DiGii Social has several resources you can use. If you want to make internet safety a year-long topic, ask students to brainstorm concepts related to web usage, from privacy settings to fact-checking and then build lessons around a new topic each week.

If you only have a short time to discuss internet safety, set aside February 6 to do so. This is known as Safer Internet Day and you might be able to rally your teachers and administrators to put together events and lessons. There are plenty of existing lessons, activities and resources you can find online to celebrate this day so you don’t have to build them yourself. You can also apply for a grant of up to $1,000 to bring Safer Internet Day to your school.

Mother taking pictures of her daughter or recording a vlog in her kitchen; internet privacy lessons concept

Internet Safety and Privacy: Parents

While you can make internet privacy and safety a key part of your curriculum throughout the year, you can also use your platform as a teacher to help parents learn how to keep their kids safe. This includes teaching parents to see what their kids do online along with providing privacy tips for their own social media usage. 

For example, parents often share pictures of the first day of school with signs sharing the student’s name, grade, teacher and favorite subject. This means parents are actually giving out a lot of information without realizing it. 

“It’s ok to say that the child is in the first grade or the fifth grade, but not where he or she goes to school, etc.,” says Donna Rice Hughes, CEO of Enough Is Enough, a non-profit that fights for internet safety. “Ask yourself those questions: Is there anything in the picture or the video that would help someone who could be dangerous or harmful to my child find out information about my child that I don’t want that person to know?”

While young kids don’t necessarily need to know about online predators yet and your lessons can focus on the positive aspects of internet safety, parents might need a reminder that the photos and videos they share are often easily found. 

“Use hashtags with caution,” writes Katie Goldstein, a children’s privacy lawyer. “You may think that tags like #nakedbaby are humorous, but labels like this may make it easy for ill-intentioned predators to find specific images.”  

If you teach older students, you can still talk to parents about managing the web usage of their teens. You also might want to have a discussion about privacy and independence on the web.

“While extreme secrecy can be a red flag, it is natural for teens to crave more privacy and space as they mature,” says Denise Witmer, author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Raising a Successful Child.” “Being more protective of information about themselves and their life outside of their family goes hand-in-hand with new independence.” 

This can admittedly be tricky because you don’t want to tell parents how to raise their kids or run their homes. You also don’t want to share web privacy tips that encourage helicopter parenting or behaviors that breed conflict. 

No one should fear the internet. It’s a valuable tool and source of entertainment. Still, you should teach your students how to navigate the web safely. Regardless of their age or learning level, every student can benefit from a privacy and safety overview. 

Images used under license from