The Facebook news in the US today was its new expanded Safety Center. The news in Britain was that Facebook “STILL refuses to install [a] ‘panic button’” on its pages, as the UK’s Daily Mail put it. However, Facebook also announced today that its UK users will “now be able to report unwanted or suspicious contact directly to CEOP [the UK's Child Exploitation & Online Protection Center] and other leading safety and child protection organizations via its own reporting system,” as CNN reported, so CEOP has come very close to getting its wish.
But this “panic button” concept is really problematic – and not just because of the word “panic,” which suggests brains in crisis mode, with all rational thought switched off. Here’s why it’s problematic:
Having said all that, everybody can thank all parties to this agreement for an important pilot test we all need to watch. Not before in history has there been a service playing host to the visual socializing of 400 million users in multiple countries, much less developing some sort of reporting system for when something in all that socializing goes wrong – the online version of dial-911 or -999 (UK) but for many more kinds of “wrong” (not just the criminal kind). I don’t know about CEOP, but our NCMEC has a CyberTipline.com, a sort of online 911 service, and it still tells people to call their local 911 service in emergencies. Physical proximity is still and always will be a factor when people need help – so just what is the role of a global online service, here? We all – social-Web companies, their users of all ages, parents, educators, law enforcement, risk prevention practitioners, psychologists, etc. – need to figure this out together. It just won’t work if the onus is placed only on companies’, or law enforcement’s, or policymakers’ shoulders – not in a highly participatory, grassroots-driven media environment.
But for heaven’s sake – or even better, for youth’s sake – let’s please take the “panic” out of this whole important test. It simply doesn’t lend itself to the calm, mutually respectful conversations that help youth develop the critical thinking that protects on the social Web. We had our predator panic on this side of the pond starting in 2006. At the Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference in Washington last fall, the Net-safety field declared it over with a strong consensus that scary messaging is not productive. Why? Because it makes young people less inclined to want to come to us for help. They tend to get as far away as possible from scared, overreacting adults; find workarounds that are readily available to them; and then leave us out of the equation right when loving, steady parent-child communication is most needed. The other reason is, even the research shows fear tactics don’t work (see “Let’s not create a cyberbullying panic” at CNET).
[Disclosure: Facebook is a supporter of a nonprofit project I help run, ConnectSafely.org, but I so hope you've seen in the above that that's not why I've blogged about this issue.]