What’s wrong with Net-safety ed … and what we can do about it
June, when I originally posted this article, is “National Internet safety Month” (I think October folds in cybersecurity too), so I decided it might be good to consider what actually works in risk prevention education, online or offline. [This article was originally published June 28, 2012, then my service’s server crashed with no backup(!), so I'm reposting today, 9/9.]
“Grumpy researcher has doubts about Internet safety programs.” David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, made us all smile when he started his remarks at a recent conference with that headline. He was talking about our country’s online-safety education track record. After the headline came some “very sobering news,” as he put it. Dr. Finkelhor said the first generation of risk-prevention programs – from drug-abuse prevention to suicide prevention to driver safety – “often fail,” and that goes for the past decade and a half of online-safety programs. The popular approaches, including scare tactics, TV news shows, videos, films, school assemblies, “typically have been shown not to work.”
What works in risk prevention
What works in prevention education, Finkelhor said, is: “simple, clear-cut messages about easily enacted kinds of behaviors.” To get to that effective kind of messaging, “program evaluation has been crucial to the whole process, something there’s precious little of in the online-safety area.” He gave some examples of the simple, clear-cut messages that have worked: “Wear a bicycle helmet,” “Put on your seat belt,” and “Don’t smoke cigarettes.” What else makes them work? When they “are very easily interpreted, involve specific behaviors around which there’s widespread consensus, and are not age-related…. They’re things we recommend to everybody, not just to children.” Another key to success: “the relationship between engaging in [the recommended] behavior [like buckling a seatbelt] and being safe is clear-cut.
Why Net-safety ed hasn’t worked
Why the instruction hasn’t work is simple: “A lot of Internet-safety messages we’ve been sending lack these attributes,” the professor said. For example, some messages we’ve all heard many times:
- “Don’t give out personal information.” So “what is ‘personal information’?” Finkelhor asked. “Name, email address? It can be all kinds of things. Are there situations where youth would have good reasons to give out personal info? Yes, there are. I think it’s very hard to draw the line. Do adults give out personal information online? Yes, all the time. So when do [kids] get that kind of license? I think it’s a very tricky message to try and convey.” [The statement also isn't accurate! In 2007 Finkelhor and other researchers reported in the medical journal Archives of Pediatrics that "posting personal information does not by itself increase [online risk] risk.”]
- “Don’t talk to strangers online.” “Who is a stranger online?” Finkelhor asked. “Are there situations where you have good and positive reasons to talk to strangers, even young people? Yes, absolutely, there are. Do adults talk to strangers? Probably three-quarters of the people I do communicate with online are strangers to me initially,” Finklehor said. “It’s a very murky area to give concrete advice about.”
- “Don’t send out sexual images.” “What is a sexual image? Does this apply to adults? Not really. Is there consensus about whether this is harmful? I think we’re still unclear about this.”
- “Don’t harass or be mean to other people” – “What is harassment? How is that different from being funny and so forth?”
Finkelhor said a lot of what we’ve been trying to get across to children “boils down” to three actually very complex messages sages have been trying to teach everybody for thousands of years: “make responsible sexual choices, observe the Golden Rule [or universal ethic of reciprocity], and avoid criminals and criminal activities.” You can see how much more doable “put on your seat belt” appears in that context.
The other problem is that these age-old universal concerns are not really about technology – we collectively (we adults, anyway), have just reflexively applied them to the technologies that represent our newest concern. All of the sage advice – about responsible sexual choices, dishing out only what we’d want dished back, and avoiding bad guys – is about “real life,” not just the online parts. In this new social media environment it’s really much more about our humanity than our technology.
‘Safety’ – not just ‘online safety’
So, parents, this is becoming a theme: If we want our children to have optimal experiences online, on phones, in virtual worlds and videogame play, etc. we need to focus on what we’ve always focused on with our children: what optimizes life, as each of us sees it. As for educators and policymakers, here’s what we need to do, Finkelhor suggests:
- Incorporate Internet safety “into broader education programs about personal safety, sex education and decisionmaking … where we actually have some evidence-based models.
- “Stop trying to teach Net safety without evaluation, wasting millions of dollars, as we have in the early days of other national campaigns.
- “Focus on generic skills that improve both online and offline health and safety” – for example, “refusal skills (learning how to say no) and bystander skills (being able to jump in and help somebody).”
But if you read nothing else…
…please read this from Finkelhor and Dr. Lisa Jones, the lead author on their discussion paper for FOSI, “Increasing Youth Safety and Responsible Behaviour Online: Putting in Place Programs that Work”:
It is not clear that the online environment is any more dangerous than any of the other environments children generally inhabit – home or school – and much research shows considerable amounts of prudent online behavior among the vast majority of children. [Let me hit the pause button right there and repeat for emphasis: These are among the US's premier youth-risk researchers pointing to solid evidence of "prudent online behavior among the vast majority of children." They continue:] Adding unnecessary fears to the burden of parenting and growing up is a danger that needs to be taken as seriously as the danger of not doing enough to protect children. So does the danger of providing a false sense of security by disseminating ineffective programs.
So fear – and ineffective online-safety instruction – are the dangers we can choose to avoid this Internet Safety Month and every month!
- For more info on what does and doesn’t work in prevention education, see Jones and Finkelhor’s very accessible paper mentioned above. It details what’s needed for a well-designed program evaluation.
- “From Europe: Top 10 youth online risk myths” – findings from the huge 25-country pan-European EU Kids Online research project
- More from Finkelhor: “‘Juvenoia,’ Part 1: Why Internet fear is overrated” and “Net-related ‘juvenoia,” Part 2: So why are we afraid?”
- “What Net safety can learn from digital game design”
- “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth”