The timing struck me. Though it seems all of life is at an inflection point now, in the middle of a pandemic, two just-published papers represent a crucial one for digital safety and citizenship education. Individually and together, they offer new guidance that simply mustn’t be lost in the Covid-19 din. The scholars point the way forward for teaching young people essential skills for life in a digital world. Thus this 2-part series, Part 1 on “Youth Internet Safety Education: Aligning Programs with the Evidence Base” and Part 2 on “Youth and Digital Citizenship+ (Plus): Understanding Skills for a Digital World.”
Online safety is like a cairn, a man-made mound of stones that keeps getting bigger as hikers add to it. The “stones” are topics addressing what are typically referred to as “risks.” This cairn started with one stone, of course. In the U.S., it was content inappropriate for children (often reduced to pornography), when our Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, all but Sect. 230 of which was struck down by the Supreme Court on free-speech grounds in June 1997. Over the 23 years since, the pile has gotten a little out of control.
Each time a new Internet risk emerged, it would get added to the pile, which over the ensuing decade and across the Atlantic, the EU Kids Online research group had organized into three categories: inappropriate, harmful and/or illegal “Content,” “Contact” (“predators,” to name a major focus) and “Conduct” (e.g., harassment, cyberbullying, sexting, etc., where youth could either receive or cause harm).
Now, in addition to graphically violent or sexual content, the pile includes child sexual exploitation and grooming; harassment and bullying; hate speech; “sexting”; “online reputation/digital footprint”; “fake news”; privacy; data security; copyright infringement; identity theft; eating disorders and other self-harm; smartphone, gaming or Internet “addiction”; and widespread, general concerns about “screen time.”
This poses a challenge – to creating, teaching and evaluating Internet safety instruction. How to decide which of those topics to put into a curriculum? Then how to find an instructional designer qualified to design it, school authorities to accept and incorporate it, teachers who feel they can teach it and evaluators qualified to critique it?
There are also cultural and political factors that affect those decisions: which groups and communities are most vulnerable in a society and what risks the public most fears and wants to address, which drives headlines and policy agendas.
A new approach
Enter this spring’s important scholarship on taking a new approach. A just-published paper – “Youth Internet Safety Education [ISE]: Aligning Programs with the Evidence Base,” from the University of New Hampshire and Queensland University in Australia – represents that inflection point I mentioned above. The authors had found that many of the online risks Internet safety programs typically address have corresponding *offline* risks already being addressed in evidence-based risk prevention programs – e.g., instruction in preventing bullying, dating abuse, sexual abuse and sexual health.
The researchers write that there is “1) considerable overlap between online harms and similar offline harms… 2) greater prevalence of offline harms… 3) evidence that the same risk factors lie behind both online and offline harms, and most importantly, (4) the substantially superior evidence base for the longer standing programs developed originally around the off-line harms.”
And yet, to this day, after 20+ years of growing integration of “the Internet” into every aspect of our lives and societies, worldwide, we still treat online risk as a separate field and ISE as a discrete subject to be taught.
The change of approach this paper points to is only logical. I’ll get to it in a moment but, for background, this paper does not come out of the blue. It builds on work that two of its authors, researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, published in 2013: “Evaluation of Internet Child Safety Materials Used by ICAC Task Forces in School and Community Settings” (ICAC refers to U.S. states’ Internet Crimes Against Children [law enforcement] Task Forces). It was a research milestone, putting on record 1) a “meta-synthesis” of existing risk prevention education for youth, 2) a “content analysis” of the U.S.’s most widely used ISE programs at the time and 3) a “process evaluation” of how they were implemented, as well as 4) an outcome analysis. The authors concluded that “the educational approach and messages of current ISE fail to incorporate critical elements of effective prevention education.”
With significant candor, the authors stated that the most widely used Internet safety education was “a highly speculative and experimental undertaking whose success cannot be assumed” (my blog post about that paper here).
That 2013 paper diagnosed the problem. Now we have a prescription: integrate Internet-based harms into “already well-established and evidence-based programs currently addressing related offline harms [emphasis theirs].”
Extrapolating from that, societies could consider these steps:
- Review the scholarly research on youth online risk (ideally in their own country – see Global Kids Online, for example) and consider the risks that feature most prominently in the public discourse against that backdrop.
- Identify evidence-based instruction with proven efficacy in preventing and treating the *offline* versions of those digital risks in their country or language.
- With an interdisciplinary team, blend the digital aspect of that risk into the chosen curriculum or program (hopefully including subject-matter, risk-prevention, digital-media, curriculum-design and child-development expertise).
- “Train the trainers” – the teachers, social workers, mental healthcare providers, risk prevention experts – in their country who will teach with the new curricula for online/offline risk prevention.
- Borrowing from public health’s levels of prevention (a recommendation of a U.S. national task force on Internet safety in 2010 – see below), 1) at the primary (risk-prevention) level, teach all children digital literacy, media literacy and social literacy (social-emotional learning), 2) at the secondary, more-targeted level, utilize “teachable moments” of school-related incidents of social cruelty, sexting, conflict, etc., to teach appropriate helpful responses, 3) at the tertiary level of prevention + intervention, ensure that school psychologists, social workers and other experts who work with at-risk youth have training in the digital knowledge and tools that support their work.
- Teach media & tech history. This moves beyond “Internet safety” but is essential context for young tech and media users. They deserve to know how the Internet works and why it came about for their generation’s safe, effective use and policymaking at the household and national levels.
Finally, I’d go even further than saying this is an important inflection point for “Internet safety.” I’d say it’s a prediction. Because the generations that have grown up with the Internet woven into everyday life (especially during a pandemic) will think it’s only logical to learn, for example, what digital as well as physical sexual harassment is in a class about sexual health and healthy relationships. The only thing that has stopped us from doing this sooner is the notion of people who didn’t grow up with the Internet that it’s separate from everything else.
I can say that, because I’m one of those people. But I’ve been exposed to enough research now to wonder if there’s really any such thing as an “Internet safety expert” – and to believe that ISE is one of those things that “takes a village.”
[Disclosure: The authors of “Youth Internet Safety Education” generously included me as a co-author; however, this had no bearing on the importance of its recommendation and my role was small, which is why I referred to the paper’s authors in the 3rd person.]
- “Youth Internet Safety Education: Aligning Programs With the Evidence Base” in the journal Trauma, Violence, & Abuse (April 2020)
- The 2013 paper that in effect provided the diagnosis: “Evaluation of Internet Child Safety MaterialsUsed by ICAC Task Forces in School andCommunity Settings, Final Report,” funded by the U.S. Department of Justice – research that convinced me “Internet safety” was a risk-prevention placeholder that society (and I meant societies around the world) created until our understanding of the Internet and youth online practices caught up to the reality. It still looks that way to me, thus my prediction above.
- Even earlier research, a comprehensive lit review by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force of 2008, found that the youth most at risk online are those most at risk offline and that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of the child’s online risk than any technology the child uses (my blog post about that is here).
- The proposal to bring the “levels of prevention” to Internet safety (mentioned above) was part of the “Youth Safety on a Living Internet: Report of the Online Safety Technology Working Group” to Congress in 2010, a national task force I co-chaired.
- My “6 takeaways from 20 years of Net safety”: Part 1 and Part 2