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 messaging or together match the messaging to what the research says. Choose to be fear-based or fact-based.
Having observed and participated in this field for more than 11 years, I understand 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 students and parents about how to stay safe online, and their talks, naturally, were largely informed by criminal cases. When online risk is presented 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 and school resource officers who really understand children and technology giving online-safety talks. There certainly are. I’ve benefitted from talking with some remarkable officers through the years. But their voices have so far been swamped 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, which is essential to any policy discussion about it.
Here are the four key takeaways from that lit review:
- Not all youth are equally at risk online
- The young people most at risk online are those most at risk offline
- Harassment and bullying are by far the most common risk US youth face online
- A child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of their online risk (and safety) than any technology the child uses.
That last point is so important. It underscores that what our children and teens (not to mention all of us) experience online has much more to do with what’s going on in and around us in everyday life – family makeup and values, social skills and experiences, peer relations and influences, etc. – than the media environment where all this is expressed, partly because digital media is just one of the environments where these factors play out. The research shows that 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 participated in – 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 news 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 that (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, many of them 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 unregulated overseas sites, 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 – 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.
- The ISTTF report download page – with links to PDFs of the full report, executive summary, research summary, and all other appendices
- “Report Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown” in the New York Times
- “Internet Child Safety Report Finds No Easy Technology Fix” in the Wall Street Journal
- Over in the UK, “Bullying biggest online threat to children” at the Financial Times
- “Teen frustrated that parents restrict access to social-networking sites” in the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World
- Past blog posts on age verification in NetFamilyNews