The evolution of online safety: Lessons learned over 20 years

When I wrote the original version of Child Safety on the Information Highway (click here for 20th anniversary updated version), in 1994, “online safety” was largely defined as keeping kids away from porn and predators and the solution was pretty much focused on parental controls.

But, over the past two decades, there have been a lot of changes in both online and mobile technology and some research that gives us a better picture of risks and prevention strategies.

Porn and predators are still part of the picture, but — now that we have some research — we know that the risk of a child being harmed by someone they meet online is extremely low, especially compared to other risks. If a child is going to be harmed by an adult, it is far more likely to be someone they know from the real world such as a relative, family friend or other trusted adult.

As for porn, there is no question that kids who want to find it probably will, but after more than 20 years of Internet access, we haven’t seen huge social or psychological problems emerge. Still, many parents are rightfully concerned about the type of content their kids are viewing, which is why I wrote So your kid is looking at porn. Now what?.

Real risks

Over time it became increasingly obvious that some of the biggest risks to kids came not from dangerous adults but from themselves and other kids. In 2009, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, assembled by Harvard’s Berkman Center per an agreement between 49 state attorneys general and MySpace, concluded that “actual threats that youth may face appear to be different than the threats most people imagine” and that “the image presented by the media of an older male deceiving and preying on a young child does not paint an accurate picture of the nature of the majority of sexual solicitations and Internet-initiated offline encounters.”

What the task force did find is that “bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most salient threats that minors face, both online and offline.” Partially because researchers can’t agree on a definition of bullying and harassment, the actual risk is hard to quantify, but it is clearly much higher than the risk of being harmed by a predator.

Bullying and “trolling” have been around forever, and it’s true that among young people, so-called “cyberbullying” is often an extension of school-yard issues. But the Internet and phones do change the equation for a number of well-known reasons, including the ability for mean comments to stick around and be passed with lightning speed. Plus, the Net has created new ways to bully like impersonating someone by getting hold of their phone or password    or passing around inappropriate pictures of someone.

Privacy, security and reputation management

As the online safety field evolves, it is starting to focus on some of the more common risks to both youth and adults: privacy, security and reputation management.

While protecting one’s privacy has always been a challenge (i.e. small-town gossip going back centuries), the Internet and mobile technology have created opportunities for privacy problems on a grand scale. For one thing, there is what we post. It’s now very easy to post information that might embarrass yourself or others or reveal secrets that perhaps you ought not to share. There is also the issue of things that companies know about us. Anyone who uses a search engine, email service or social network is leaving breadcrumbs for companies to follow. What’s more, thanks to third-party tracking cookies, some of that information is getting into the hands of companies that we might not even know exist. It’s a serious issue that needs serious thought by consumers, regulators and companies. And everyone — including children and teens — needs to learn how to at least limit what others can find out about them. Plus, thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the U.S. and other governments have the capacity to track us as well, and given the enormous power of government over our lives, that too can be a serious problem.

Security is another Internet safety issue that has gotten worse over the years. It seems like every day brings another major security breach where we learn about the vulnerability of our usernames and passwords, credit card information or email. There are lots of professionals in government and the private sector who are working to beef up security but there are plenty of criminals out there finding ways to gain entry into our personal information. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, and right now the “good guys” are way behind. While there is no way to be 100% hacker-proof, there are ways families can improve their security and use secure and unique passwords.

Reputation management is something we thought about in the 90′s but it’s a bigger issue now thanks to social networking and smartphone apps that make it very easy to impulsively post things that can embarrass us now or in the future. A lot of young people are savvy when it comes to avoiding posting things that can get them into trouble but there are plenty of people (including lots of adults) who need to rethink their posting habits.

Moral panics don’t help

Whether it’s predator panic, bullying panic, sexting panic, privacy panic or secrecy panic, moral panics are not helpful.

As technology evolves, there will be new risks but what we’ve learned from 20 years of online safety is that risks have more to do with the social-emotional condition of the user than the actual technology being used. For example, there has lately been a lot of concern over the services that allow people to post anonymously. While it is true that these services can be used to bully, harass and embarrass others, it’s also true that there are lots of positive uses for them. Sure there will be some who misuse these services, but the vast majority of youth and adults — those who respect themselves and others — will use them appropriately. Just as with fire, knives, cars and other powerful technologies, the key is to encourage safe and appropriate use while doing what’s necessary to deal with the relatively rare but sometimes tragic cases of inappropriate use.

Parental involvement vs. controls

While there are plenty of products that can control or monitor what your kids can do online, none are as powerful or effective in the long term as parental involvement. A filter might prevent your child from visiting a certain site or service on a specific device but conversations over a period of time can help your child develop values that will last a lifetime.

Regardless of whether you choose to use a filtering program or an Internet rating system, the best way to assure that your children are having positive online experiences is to stay in touch with what they are doing. The best filter — the one that lasts a lifetime — doesn’t run on a device but on the software between your child’s ears.

Focus on  causes, not just symptoms

Another thing we’ve learned is that problems that manifest themselves online or with mobile technology are often symptoms of larger social or personal issues. Just as with drunk or careless driving and substance abuse, there are almost always underlying issues that cause people to misuse technologies and the real solution rarely lies with the technology and often lies with the what that is causing the person to act as they are. Even cyberbullying is less about technology or even “bullying” and more about the social-emotional state of the people involved. And to that end we need to start putting more resources into social-emotional learning,  growing compassion and emphasizing positive social norms for both youth and adults.

 

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