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Internet Safety 3.0

This is a work in progress, subject to revision

The Internet and the way young people use technology are constantly evolving but the safety messages change very slowly if at all. A few years ago some of us in the Internet safety community started talking about how to adjust our messaging for the more interactive “Web 2.0.” But even those messages are starting to get a bit stale. Now it’s time for Internet Safety 3.0.

Like technology itself, Internet safety has to evolve. Back in 1994, when I wrote the first widely disseminated Internet safety publication, I advised parents not to let kids put personal information or photos online and, because of what turned out to be an exaggerated fear of predators, I urged them to avoid online conversations with strangers. Back then, along with trying to keep kids away from porn, Internet safety was mostly about protecting children from dangerous adults.

But starting around 2005 a new phase of the web — often referred to as “Web 2.0,” prompted some Internet safety advocates to focus on ways kids could get in trouble for what they post on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. It was in that year that Anne Collier and I founded (later renamed so we could provide a forum for discussing safety issues on the Interactive web. It was also around that time that politicians and the media, especially the TV show “To Catch a Predator,” started whipping up fears of predators trolling the web for vulnerable children.

Risks not what they seemed to be

But, after carefully reviewing available research, the statistics show that the likelihood of a young person being harmed by an online stranger – though not impossible — is quite rare and that sexual solicitations and harassment are most often from peers. And to the extent it has occurred, it affects teens, not young children, said Crimes Against Children Research Center director David Finkelhor in an interview. The overwhelming majority of crimes against youth continue to take place in the “real world,” mostly by adults known to the child. But that doesn’t mean that the Internet is a risk-free zone. It’s just that young people are far more likely to be harmed by other youth or the consequences of their  own online behavior than by adult criminals.

And their interactions are largely with people they know from the real world. As danah boyd (she prefers a lower case d & b) observed in her doctoral dissertation Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics (PDF) “teen participation in social network sites is driven by their desire to socialize with peers. Their participation online is rarely divorced from offline peer culture; teens craft digital self-expressions for known audiences and they socialize almost exclusively with people they know.”

This understanding of youth risk led to a whole new phase of Internet safety education focusing on such things as cyberbullying and urging youth to avoid posting material that could be embarrassing or get them into trouble with authorities, potential future employers, etc. Most recently, the focus has turned to the emotional, legal and reputational consequences of “sexting,” — kids sending nude pictures of themselves via cell phones or the web. But now we run the risk of  “technopanics” over sexting and bullying and we’ve already seen so-called experts on national TV, stating that these relatively common youth behaviors have been the cause of a few tragic teen suicides

Not just about technology or even safety

Internet Safety 3.0 isn’t necessarily about the Internet or even about safety. It’s about helping young people make wise choices not just in how they use technology but in how they live their lives. And, like the anonymous quote, “peace is more than just the absence of war,” Internet safety is more than just the absence of danger. It also includes finding ways to use technology for learning, collaboration, community building, political activism, self-help and reaching out to others. It’s encouraging children and teenagers to thrive in their use of technology.

What we’ve learned from observing how kids use the Net, mobile phones, gaming devices and other interactive technology is that there is really no distinction between online and offline behaviors. Technology is woven into their lives. They don’t GO online, they ARE online. So it’s really about youth safety – not Internet safety.

Arguably, it’s not even about safety. It’s also about how kids treat each other. When you consider the most likely threats to youth such as cyberbullying, and loss of reputation from posting or sending inappropriate material (including “sexting,”) the issue is less about safety and more about ethics and responsibility – learning to respect themselves and others. But it’s also about empowerment, critical thinking, media literacy and self-reliance. We should even re-think the whole notion of adults “protecting” children online.

Of course, the Internet does act as an amplifier and extender of risk. What you post online can live forever, be found through search engines, be copied and be seen by virtually anyone. Boyd calls this “persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability,” along with “a set of dynamics” including “invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and the blurring of public and private.”

Protecting through empowerment

Of course parents should be very involved in their children’s lives all the way through the teenage years but the way you protect children is not so much to shield them from danger but to empower them to protect themselves.

It’s not realistic to expect parents to protect children and teens 24/7, but parents can encourage smart choices on and off the net. And, as my co-director Anne Collier has suggested, media literacy along with digital citizenship, “is the new Internet safety” for the vast majority of online youth who are not at serious risk offline.

These are not just philosophical arguments. They’re pragmatic because preaching about safety or trying lock down the Internet doesn’t protect kids and trying to instill fear, especially if based largely on myths, actually increases danger because it causes kids to tune out all adult advice, including good advice.

Sure there are technologies that can keep kids from using social networking services or visiting inappropriate websites. But, like fences around swimming pools, the use of filters at home and school can’t protect them forever. That’s why we teach kids to swim. Not only does knowing how to swim help prevent drowning; it empowers them to thrive in the water instead of fearing it. The same is true with technology. As kids mature into teens, we must pull back on the technological controls in favor of self-control.

In an email interview,  Dr. Larry Rosen, Professor of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and author of Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation observed, “sadly, too many parents think that using technology to track their children’s keystrokes or restrict access to certain websites is sufficient parenting.  It is not.  Parents must be involved with their children’s virtual lifestyles developing trust, being aware of any potential problems, learning about the technologies they use, and communicating often.”

Besides, there are plenty of ways that teens can get around filters and, with any luck, teens will quickly transform into young adults and be on their own. Instilling self-control and empowerment lasts a lifetime and doesn’t require putting up “fences.” As I’ve said in practically every Internet safety speech I’ve given since 1995, the best filter for protecting kids doesn’t run on devices, but in their heads.

In a blog post, Anne Collier has categorized three types of online safety: physical safety, psychological safety and reputational and legal safety. All of these, she argues, “are fostered when youth receive training in citizenship, ethics, empathy (and) new media literacy.” She further warns that ” ‘online safety’ (is) in danger of becoming a barrier rather than a support to young people’s constructive, enriching use of social media and technologies. If that happens, it also becomes a barrier to their full participation in participatory culture and democracy.” That’s why we need to encourage youth participation in all aspects of technology, including finding ways to help protect themselves.

Broader expertise needed

In addition to redefining online safety, we also need to expand the discussion. When online safety advocates gather at conferences, the room is typically filled with public policy professionals, technology experts, lawyers and sometimes representative of law enforcement. But the cadre of professionals needs to also include psychologists, physicians, counselors, social workers, youth workers, clergy, tech educators and others involved in the lives of young people. And young people themselves need to be part of the discussion, not just to listen and parrot what adults tell them to say, but to help think through the issues, help adults understand the difference between real and imagined dangers and come up with messages that will resonate with other youth.

We also need to put these issues in a broader social context. Because the use of digital technology is totally integrated into the lives of youth, we need to understand not just on and offline behavior, but the social forces that affect children starting at a very young age.

One size does not fit all

One problem with most of today’s Internet safety messaging campaigns is that there is only one set of messages for the entire population. But, an extensive literature review conducted by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force’s Research Advisory Board found that “not all youth are equally at risk” and that “those experiencing difficulties offline, such as physical and sexual abuse, and those with other psychosocial problems are most at risk online.” To be effective, the Internet safety community has to find ways tailor its messages based on particular risk factors. Not to do so would be like inoculating an entire population for a disease that affects only a small number of people while not inoculating the very people of are most at risk. I’ve often worried that most of the teens and parents who are consumers of safety messages are the very people who least need to hear them.

Internet safety and the “sexually toxic culture”

We must also look at behavior in light of the culture in which youth are being raised. I would never suggest that society should be prudish or suppress sexuality, but I am concerned by the extent to which overt sexuality — starting at a very young age — is being promoted by the media, fashion industry, music, TV, movies, everywhere. Young people are growing up in what sexual abuse prevention specialist Cordelia Anderson has referred to as a “sexually toxic culture.”

Anderson chairs the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Exploitation (which includes ConnectSafely) that has drawn a connection between commercial and individual sexual exploitation with youth risk and even child sexual abuse. Kids posting provocative or sending out sexually suggestive images (sexting) according to Anderson, “is behaviorally consistent with what kids see all around them.”

Overcoming this larger cultural issue is not going to happen overnight nor will all stakeholders agree with Anderson and other members of the Coalition that it’s a contributing factor to teen risk.  But there are plenty of studies to show that risky teen behavior is influenced by the media, social and cultural environment around them.

Key elements of Internet Safety 3.0

  • Be accurate and honest about risks. Don’t exaggerate or use fear tactics
  • Understand risk and tailor messages by population groups – kids are not equally at risk
  • Expand the conversation to include physicians, mental health professionals, social workers, tech educators and other experts
  • Understand impact of larger culture on youth risk and behavior
  • Don’t try to “lock down” the Internet. Encourage youth experimentation and involvement
  • Empower youth to protect themselves

Reasons for optimism

I am optimistic that officals are starting to “get it.” In her remarks before the first meeting of the Congressionally mandated Online Safety Technology Working Group, Susan Crawford — White House Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy– reminded the group to “avoid overheated rhetoric about risks to kids online” and pointed out that “risks kids face online may not be significantly different than the risks they face offline.”

She also said that “the risks are more subtle than the press would have us believe,” and that we need to avoid trying to find “silver bullets” and recommending policy based on “anecdotes.” Finally she pointed out that we need to be careful to avoid “tech mandates.”

Despite the worry from some that the net has unleashed unpredictable dangers, I am not terribly concerned. The net has been around long enough for a generation of “digital natives” to reach young adulthood. And judging by the many people of that age group I know (including my own two young adult children), I am convinced that they are least as well adjusted as previous generations who grew up offline. Their definition of privacy may be a bit different than their parents as is their sensitivity to pornography and other seemingly shocking content, but – from all appearances – as a generation — they seem relatively unscathed.

It could be said about today’s generation that “the young have already staked out their own mini society, a congruent culture that has both alarmed their elders and, stylistically at least, left an irresistible impression on them” but – in fact, that was said about today’s 50 to 70 year olds in a Time Magazine article from 1967.

The parents of my compatriots had to worry about long hair, drug use, the sexual revolution, rock and roll and political protests yet it was that very generation that – for better and worse – produced most of the leaders of the last 20 years. Somehow I think we’re going to be OK.


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