I spent part of last week in Washington, D.C., attending a gathering that turned out to be a watershed moment in the 16-year history of online safety education.
The third annual conference of the Family Online Safety Institute brought together about 400 Internet safety advocates around the theme of “Building a Culture of Responsibility: From Online Safety to Digital Citizenship.”
The event, which drew participants from 15 countries, was different from previous years in that young people were viewed less as potential victims of online crimes and more as participants in a global online community.
That’s not to say that participants didn’t worry aloud about youth safety, but instead of focusing on real and imagined dangers, we focused on how adults can work with young people to encourage both ethical and self-protective behavior. It’s all about media literacy, digital citizenship and critical thinking.
This was a big change from just a couple of years ago, when Internet safety gatherings typically focused on ways adults could put up walls to protect children against predators, pornography and other dangers.
While Internet porn continues to be an issue, the “predator panic” that was rampant a few years ago has largely been put to rest as safety experts and law enforcement studies from the Crimes Against Children Research Center and elsewhere show that, statistically, the odds of a prepubescent child being sexually molested by an
online stranger is virtually zero and the odds of it happening to a teenager are very low, especially when compared with children who are harmed by family members and others they know from the real world.When kids are harmed or annoyed online, the culprit is far more likely to be a fellow young person. Though exact numbers are hard to come by, about a third of teens report having been subjected to some type of cyberbullying or online harassment ranging from slightly nasty comments to cruel messages, impersonation or even stalking.
Kids are affected by their own behavior ranging from posting pictures or comments online that could come to haunt them later to “sexting,” sending nude or nearly nude pictures of themselves to others.
While such images usually wind up only in the hands of the intended recipient, there are plenty of cases where photos have been distributed to others or posted online, causing embarrassment or potential ridicule. Even worse, there are teens who have been charged and convicted of producing, possessing and/or distributing child pornography.
While most prosecutors realize that child pornography laws were meant to protect, not punish, kids, a few misguided ones have used these laws against children.
When I said that the Internet safety field is 16 years old, I’m dating it from the publication of the first widely disseminated Internet safety booklet and set of rules which, I confess, were written by this columnist. Back then, I came up with some assumptions like “that 12-year-old girl might be a 40-year-old man” and “posting personal information can lead to harm,” but I wrote that material long before we had research to show that these and other early assumptions weren’t actually the case.
Years ago, I stopped giving out that type of advice but others continue to perpetuate myths about Internet dangers. What made me feel good about this conference is that all of the panic messages were off the table. What we talked about instead is how we can help adults better understand how kids actually use technology and how we can work with kids to better manage risk.
One theme at the conference was “one size doesn’t fit all.” Most kids are actually pretty savvy about keeping themselves safe from serious harm, but others — who are taking big risks — need more serious intervention. Risk prevention specialist Patti Agatston suggested we consider using health prevention models for Internet safety education — basic safety advice for most youth and intense counseling from mental health professionals for the small minority of young people who are taking extraordinary risks both on and offline.
There was a lot of discussion about the lack of interactive social media in schools. Federal law requires schools that receive federal “E-Rate” funding to use Internet filters, and many schools use these filters to block social media sites like MySpace and Facebook.
No one was suggesting that kids should spend their school days socializing with friends on Facebook and MySpace, but several speakers wondered why schools aren’t using social media as part of the educational process.
Anne Collier, my co-director at ConnectSafely.org, suggested that we think of social media “as the new book.” These are interactive books, in a sense, where kids are both consumers and authors. Rather than banning them, schools should be channeling kids toward educational use of this technology.