We really need to rethink online safety. When you talk with teens in your family or classroom, do you see what I’m seeing: that, because of the predator panic US society has been experiencing and widespread school policy to block social media, they have practically tuned out the term “online safety”? Because it has for so long been equated with “deleting predators” and it can’t really help them deal with the complexities of their online/offline social lives, it’s in danger of becoming irrelevant to them.
That puts “online safety” in danger of becoming a barrier rather than a support to young people’s constructive, enriching use of social media and technologies. If that happens, it also becomes a barrier to their full participation in participatory culture and democracy.
Certainly the social Web itself isn’t participatory democracy 2.0; however – witness the prominent role of social network sites in the US’s latest presidential election (see just-released Pew/Internet research) – it has clearly become an important tool of participatory democracy and, as such, needs to be part of citizenship and media literacy education in school (to remain relevant to social media’s most fluent practitioners – teens – schools cannot afford to discourage or block social media’s use). Online and offline citizenship and social media literacy are themselves the lionshare of online-safety education for youth who are not at risk in offline life (more on this below and in “Social media literacy: The new Internet safety”).
To help keep school relevant to students, make online safety meaningful to them, make their use of social media more constructive, and close what author and media professor Henry Jenkins calls the participation gap, we need to: 1) put online safety into the context of full, healthy participation and 2) redefine it as freedom from a set of risks that restrict youth from free expression and civic engagement through social technologies and media.
The three forms of safety that enable full participation are:
All of those freedoms – including from physical harm – are fostered when youth receive training in citizenship, ethics, empathy, new media literacy (employing the critical-thinking filter to what one “says,” uploads, or produces as much as reads, downloads or consumes). Such training couldn’t remove all online risk any more than it could remove all danger from offline life – particularly for at-risk youth. It can’t speed up teenage brain development, which necessarily involves risk taking and assessment and continues until their early-to-mid-20s. But it would go way beyond legislation, stranger-danger messages, parental-control technology, or any other-imposed safety measure, because it develops the internal “filter” that is always with them.
These freedoms are not the goal; they are means to achieving it. We need to shift the public discussion from the more negative safety from to the much more positive safety for or toward active civic engagement online and offline as an essential goal of education in a free society (see the impressive array of skills involved in new media literacy at NewMediaLiteracies.org).
Educator and author Will Richardson says it better. Referring to social Web technologies, he recently wrote in ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine that, “for a host of reasons, we’re failing to empower kids to use one of the most important technologies for learning that we’ve ever had. One of the biggest challenges educators face right now is figuring out how to help students create, navigate, and grow the powerful, individualized networks of learning that bloom on the Web and helping them do this effectively, ethically, and safely.” Safe, ethical, full participation is also one of the biggest opportunities, as well as challenges, we all – students, educators, parents, policymakers, society itself – face right now.
Readers, please jump in – agree, disagree, edit, augment, or comment here, in our ConnectSafely.org forum, or via email to anne(at)netfamilynews.org!