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Our Safer Internet Day 2012…

I meant the “Our” in the headline in a global way. All of us. We know this, of course, but we don’t think about it enough: It’s literally our Internet – across generations and borders, this very participatory, dynamic media environment that’s updated by all of us in real time, 24/7, seven days a week. I love that the European Commission’s Internet safety group – the source of Safer Internet Day, which started in 2004 – made this year’s theme “Connecting Generations and Educating Each Other” (get the background from 19-year-old, multilingual Austris in the video on the European Commission’s page on this), because Net safety and literacy education is necessarily multidirectional and multigenerational (peer-to-peer and youth-to-adult as well as adult-to-youth). We ConnectSafely.org folk are here at the Safer Internet Day conferences in Moscow, learning a great deal while speaking about our own country’s Internet-safety experiences.

One amazing factoid we heard is that, in Russia, more than 90% of Internet users are 12-24, and 59% are aged 12-15. And yet, there were no 12-to-15-year-olds at these conferences – not surprising to most adults (especially those who believe children belong in school on weekdays), but surprising when you consider that the “beneficiaries” of days of deliberation have no input in the discussion about them. But that’s no different from online-safety discussions everywhere. It seems to be a universal phenomenon. I remember so many discussions in our country in which children were presented as an undifferentiated mass of potential victims of an undifferentiated new technology.

Safer Internet Day is more reality check than celebration here in Russia – at least that’s what one Russian lawmaker said during the conference – and much of the discussion is about a national filtering law that has been passed by the State Duma but won’t be in effect until next September. How to implement it (what’s required of who, what will be blocked for children and how) is still being worked out. [Both China and Australia were mentioned at different times as potential models, interestingly.] Based on presentations over two days, there is great concern, if not fear, about the Internet’s impact on children in Russia, particularly adult content, sexual exploitation, and information about illegal drugs. There seems to be a sense that the Internet is increasing harm to children (though the opposite has been found to be the case in the US, research shows).

Research-free policymaking

And there’s the rub right there – lack of research to base any of it on. Certainly the Internet and mobile industries here have user data, but the focus has not been on youth. We heard that so far there is extremely little research in Russia about children’s Internet activities or online risk, though that’s beginning to change: Russia, specifically psychology scholars at Moscow State University, joined the EU Kids Online pan-European research project a little over a year ago (see this). So, in this way, Russia’s Internet-safety scene is like the US’s in the ’90s, when the online-safety field had virtually no research in either youth risk online or children’s Internet use on which to base its messaging. Like in Russia now, our messaging – e.g., at school “Internet Safety Nights” – was sourced largely from law enforcement and based on crime data and police work. So by definition that would present a largely negative, if not outright frightening, picture of what children encounter online, as it did in our country. That will change in Russia, as it has gradually in the US, as speculation and fear yield to understanding, with the emergence in 2000 of the youth-online-risk research field and a few years later social-media research – but I hope it’s possible Russian parents won’t have to go down that road as far as we did.

This should be qualified, though, with an acknowledgment that this post too is based on “data” from only a few days of conferencing – and informed impressions. When all the text around us (e.g., PowerPoint slides, logos, Metro signs, etc.) is in Cyrillic and all the proceedings are heard in two languages simultaneously – the English through headphones and dependent on the skill of an interpreter – one feels like both a fly on the wall and a participant at the same time. You’re interacting with kind hosts while watching sometimes passionate discussion about issues you’re familiar with but experiencing from outside the discussion. Many presentations are about just-launched Internet-safety Web sites for parents and kids, black lists of bad sites, white lists that create “walled gardens” for children, and even some discussion about ensuring that Web sites for children are created in “literate,” grammatical Russian. As I heard my fellow panelist speak on that, I wondered if now there are about as many Web sites in Russian as there were in English at the end of the ’90s. This society is simultaneously a new democracy with a powerful tech industry and a proud ancient culture informed by a religion that seems to have newly reinstated but unparalleled influence. That’s a fascinating discussion to dip into, especially considering that all of this of course informs the child-online-protection discussion.

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