Online safety has reached a major crossroads, here in the US. The Internet Safety Technical Task Force’s report is being released tonight, and to me (a Task Force member), it represents a stark choice all stakeholders have going forward: continue down the road of fear-based online-safety education or together match all messaging to what the research says – be fear-based or fact-based.
Having observed and participated in this field for more than 11 years, I think it’s understandable how we got here. The US’s public discussion, fueled by mostly negative media coverage, has been dominated by law enforcement. Starting in the mid-’90s, police departments representing the only really accessible, on-location expertise in online safety, filled an information vacuum. They and members of the growing number of state Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces were the people who spoke to schoolkids and parents about how to stay safe online, and their talks, naturally, were largely informed by criminal cases. When online-safety education is carried out by experts in crime – those who see the worst uses of the Internet on a daily basis – fear is often the audience’s take-away. That’s not to say there aren’t amazing youth-division officers who really understand children and technology giving online-safety talks – there are, we have one, Det. Frank Dannahey in Connecticut, on our Advisory Board – but their voices have so far been drowned out by the predator panic the American public has been saddled with.
Meanwhile, over the past decade, a broad spectrum of research has been published about both online youth risk and young people’s general everyday use of all kinds of Internet technologies, fixed and mobile. And now it’s all reviewed and summarized in this report (downloadable here), one of three major accomplishments of the Task Force, the other two being the national-level discussion it represented, involving key stakeholders, and that it acknowledges the international nature of the Internet, essential to any policy discussion about it.
One of the researchers’ most important findings – information really helpful to parents, finally – is that a child’s psychosocial makeup and the conditions surrounding him are more important predictors of online risk than the technology he uses. Not every child is equally at risk of anything online, including predation. The research shows 1) only a tiny minority of online youth are at risk of sexual exploitation resulting from Net activity, and these are at-risk kids in “real life,” and 2) online risk of all forms – inappropriate behavior, content or contact, by peers or adults – has been present through all phases of the Web and all interactive technologies kids use; it doesn’t show up only in social-network sites. It’s rooted in user behavior, not in crime.
As an online-safety advocate who talks to parents all the time, I kept wanting to say to the attorneys general – since they announced their online-safety prescription, age verification, 2.5 years ago at a DC conference on social-networking I attended – that focusing solely on predation, or crime, doesn’t help parents. Parents need the full picture – all the risk factors and danger signs, the positives and neutrals, too, not just the negatives – in order to guide their kids.
I think any parent gets why the full picture is needed. Most parents know they can’t afford to be like deer in the headlights, paralyzed by the scary evidence coming from those focused on crime (and those covering them in the media). Kids sensing irrational fear want to get as far away as possible. They know it can cause parents to overreact and, based on misinformation, shut down the perceived source of danger. That sends them underground, where much-needed parental involvement and back-up isn’t around. How, I kept wanting to ask the AGs, who are parents themselves, does that reduce online kids’ risk? To young people, taking away the Internet is like taking away their social lives, and there are too many ways kids can sneak away – to overseas sites beyond the reach of any US regulation, to irresponsible US sites that don’t work with law enforcement, to and with other technologies, devices, and hot spots parents don’t know about it – including friends’ houses, where their rules don’t apply.
Certainly the attorneys general have played an important watchdog role, here in a country where a discussion about industry best practices hasn’t even begun. Now, with the release of a full research summary maybe that discussion can start. That’s possible because, with a national report that says the most common risk kids face is online bullying and harassment – bad behavior, not crime (and their own aggressive behavior more than doubles their risk of victimization) – and with the Task Force’s technical advisers concluding that no single technology can solve the whole problem “or even one aspect of it 100% of the time,” we’re moving closer to a calm, rational societal understanding of the problem – the Task Force ended up working toward a diagnosis rather than filling a prescription for one of the (certainly scariest) symptoms.
With the release of the Task Force report, online safety as we know it is obsolete. The report lays out more than enough reasons to take a fact-based approach to protecting online kids – to stop seeing and portraying them almost exclusively as potential victims and work with them, as citizens and drivers of the social Web, toward making it a safer, more civil and constructive place to learn, play, produce and socialize.