Great article. I agree with everything 100%. I just wish parents would listen, learn and act…
Online safety as we know it is obsolete. A concept little changed since the 1990s, it’s one size fits all, emphasizing fear instead of facts, with young people stereotyped as potential victims in a hostile media environment. While kids and the better informed may simply roll their eyes at the notion, the fear generated by what we’ve heard about online safety has affected technology funding and access in our schools, and from a student’s perspective, keeps them from the media that they find so compelling (not that they don’t have workarounds). It’s past time for Online Safety 3.0.
Why 3.0? Previous versions—let’s call them 1.0 and 2.0—focused on inappropriate content, adult-to-child crime, and flat-out misinformation about youth risk and social media. While more recently the concept began to factor in peer-to-peer safety issues such as cyberbullying, we still failed to recognize youth agency: young people as stakeholders in their own welfare as well as the community’s.
Online safety must be relevant to youth, or we’re talking to ourselves. It must accommodate the growing body of research on youth risk and what kids themselves say about how they use digital media, and it must be respectful—of both young people and the new media conditions they’re ably exploiting.
Version 3.0’s main components, new media literacy and digital citizenship, are empowering as well as protective. This is intuitive to librarians, but not so much to online-safety advocates and law enforcement officials, whose expertise in crime and the law (rather than education, adolescent development, and new media) has dominated the Net-safety discussion thus far.
What we know about youth risk online
In January 2009, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF), created by 49 state attorneys general and MySpace, wrapped up a year’s work with a report that summarized all the online safety research to date—a major contribution to the public discussion. It concluded that cyberbullying and harassment are the biggest hazards youth face; all children are not equally at risk; and children’s psychosocial makeup and environment are better predictors of risk than the technology they use.
Let’s take on the issue that gets the most attention: predators. Online predation cases, according to ISTTF, never involve prepubescent children and almost never involve abduction and assault, the scenario long associated with “stranger danger.” “These are not violent sex crimes,” explains David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire. “They are criminal seductions that take advantage of common teenage vulnerabilities. The offenders play on teens’ desires for romance, adventure, sexual information, and understanding” (see “Profile of a teen online victim”). In fact, most sexual solicitations of teens online are by peers.
The overwhelming majority of crimes against youth continue to take place in the “real world,” mostly by adults known to the children. The best protection against this type of manipulation and exploitation is critical thinking, engaged parenting, and mentoring.
Online, young people are far more likely to suffer from their peers or the consequences of their own online behavior. Consider an important finding published in 2007: “Youth who engage in online aggressive behavior by making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others are more than twice as likely to report online interpersonal victimization” (Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine). Aggressive behavior increases risk, while kindness, empathy, and good citizenship reduce it. See how important critical thinking skills have become?
As for the risk inherent in social network sites, CCRC released a significant report in March 2008. It concluded “there was no evidence that online predators were stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on information they posted at social networking sites.”
One size does not fit all
ISTTF’s summary additionally 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 must find ways to tailor its message based on specific risk factors.
When online-safety advocates gather at conferences, the room is typically filled with public policy professionals, technology experts, lawyers, and law enforcement people. Online Safety 3.0 needs to adopt other perspectives, including those of librarians, tech educators, counselors, school administrators, and young people themselves. To help youth who are at risk—of sexual exploitation, domestic violence, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide—mental health professionals and social workers must also be brought into the circle.
The Net effect
The Internet is not “the problem,” but there are certainly ways it can affect the equation for all of us, regardless of age. I call this “the Net effect.” It’s based on a set of characteristics unique to online networking as identified by social media researcher danah boyd in her doctoral dissertation, “Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics.” These traits include persistence and searchability (the Net as a permanent, searchable archive), replicability (the ability to copy and paste from and to anywhere on the Net), scalability (potential visibility beyond the audience you have in mind), invisible audiences (never really knowing who’s seeing/reading/watching what you post), and blurring of public and private (private from whom?).
Important, too, is disinhibition: what happens when you’re unable to see or hear the other party online. Inhibitions break down, which can be good, but may reduce empathy and civility as well. That’s why lessons in citizenship, ethics, and critical thinking about content that’s incoming and outgoing are essential, throughout the grade levels, curriculum, and school day, ideally using the very social media and technologies so much in use outside of school.
More than one type of online safety
Online Safety 1.0, with the predator panic it cultivated, was largely one-dimensional. Protecting youth from predators deals only with physical safety; essential, certainly, but that’s not all. Here are the four types of safety, or rather freedoms, required for healthy online participation:
- Physical—freedom from physical harm
- Psychological—freedom from cruelty, harassment, and exposure to potentially disturbing material
- Reputational and legal—freedom from unwanted social, academic, professional, and legal consequences that could affect you for a lifetime
- Identity, property, and community—freedom from theft of identity and property and attacks against networks and online communities at local, national, and international levels.
What we know about how youth use social media
“[Teen] participation online is rarely divorced from offline peer culture,” writes boyd. “Teens craft digital self-expressions for known audiences and they socialize almost exclusively with people they know.” For them, the Web and cell phones represent just another place to hang out and socialize; the device used matters little.
And they’re not just socializing. Based on a three-year study by the more than two dozen researchers of the Digital Youth Project, we know that a lot of important informal learning is going on while youth are “online, texting, or playing video games.” “The digital world is creating new opportunities for youth to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills, and experiment with new forms of self-expression,” reads the report. In fact, kids are engaged in two kinds of social networking: friendship-driven—the most common—and interest-driven social networking, which might better be characterized as collaboration or creative networking.
Even in multiplayer online games, there’s a lot more going on than just play. But even that’s not a bad thing. “Play is hugely important to the learning and the crafting of the brain,” psychiatrist Stuart Brown said in a recent TED talk. In the multiplayer online game World of Warcraft, for example, educators who are also WOW fans tell me that players analyze statistics and probabilities, strategize, learn how to budget and market, and explore supply and demand—key concepts of economics, math, and sociology.
In his recent book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (Viking, 2009), Ken Robinson describes how many people—artists, writers, scientists, etc.—achieve success when they find their “tribe” or community of shared interest, where “interest-driven social networking” happens. There, they encounter validation, feedback, and a safe place to experiment. This is the work many young people are engaged in as they use social media—informal but authentic and compelling learning experiences.
As a consequence, school becomes less important for many youth. As one student told a researcher: “If you’re doing it for a grade, it doesn’t really count.” What a missed opportunity for education and the teaching of safe media use. When in school, students could be learning the skills that ensure safe, productive writing, producing, and collaborating using social media.
Why digital citizenship and literacy are key
Consider “sexting,” the practice of sharing explicit personal photos, usually via cell phone. In most jurisdictions, a minor caught sexting could be prosecuted for committing a federal felony under child pornography laws. In a recent Florida case, for instance, a just-turned 18-year-old was convicted of child-porn distribution and, as required by state law, will be listed on the state sex-offender registry until he’s 43 because, in a fit of anger one night, he forwarded some naked photos of his longtime girlfriend (which she had taken and shared with him).
Sexting has a whole spectrum of causes—from a misguided idea of romance and intimacy, impulsive risk-taking and peer pressure to revenge, malicious bullying, or even blackmail—and the instructive, disciplinary, and legal responses to it must be equally nuanced.
You can see then why I strongly advocate for integrating new media literacy and digital citizenship into the learning experience, from the informal kind that happens outside school to within K–12 libraries and classrooms, and to teachable moments with peers, parents, administrators, and whole communities.
I’m not suggesting that these efforts will cure sexting. But literacy and citizenship training represent the baseline, primary prevention work that may help curb impulsive behavior, ease manipulation, and fuel rational discussion among young people and between generations. And it’s what librarians do best.