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Post-FOSI: Online safety now, predictions for 2020

“Trust and civility” were, so very appropriately, the focus of the Family Online Safety Institute‘s just-ended annual conference this challenging year.

“We have witnessed countless examples…of ways that trust in institutions, in organizations and even in each other has been eroded,” FOSI CEO Stephen Balkam noted in his opening remarks. “And we have watched how basic civility has been challenged by trolling, online harassment, bullying behavior and worse.”

So back to trust and civility. “We need to protect this treasure,” said Robin Raskin, founder of Living in Digital Times, as she and Larry Magid, with whom I co-directed ConnectSafely.org for 10 years, were up on stage wrapping the day and summarizing their session that discussed what online safety will look like in 2020. “This is the maturation point, the testing point. The big players in this room need to play as one,” Robin continued. Larry added: “These companies need to keep Americans on their side…these institutions, because they are becoming institutions.”

The elephant in the room

They were referring to Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Snap, etc., all of whom were in the room. I completely agree this is a “maturation” and “testing point” for companies – and social media in general. But they’re not the only “big players.” The elephant in that room was the rarely discussed one in every gathering about social media and technologies: us, social media users.

We’re the real heavyweights, but we haven’t fully woken up to our powers in this new media environment and networked planet (have you heard young people use the term “woke”?), and users have reached a maturation point too. In order to protect that “treasure” Robin was referring to – connecting humanity for the good of people and societies worldwide – it would be good if we woke up and helped in two ways:

1. Learn about and exercise our powers as users in this media environment that has for over a decade been called “user-driven” – recognize that the social norms that have guided and protected human beings and their communities – tribes, families, worship gatherings, schools, workplaces, etc. – through thousands of years of norms development will increasingly do so in digital communities too – if we take up our role in the new social contract that this very social media environment represents.

Then use that clarity for action. It’s time to exercise our powers as users rather than abdicate them. Our safety and privacy can’t depend entirely on companies and government regulators, not in this media environment. Take what action? We don’t know yet. We can’t know because we’ve spent at least 15 years treating new media like old media – the mass media that the generation in power (in government, education, the news media and other institutions) grew up with, where users were passive consumers, even potential victims, of media. There are better things to do than blame, spread fear about, block from, “detox” from and monitor media use. Control and surveillance do not empower. Digital, media and social literacy educators are getting this more and more now. But now it has to go beyond even education to getting ourselves and the other stakeholders (advocates/educators, corporations and government) thinking and working together, cross-functionally. Identifying and addressing pockets of ignorance, power imbalances and rights violations on any stakeholder’s part would be a good first agenda item for our work together.

2. Protect our humanity and our belief in and vision for humanity, by not equating increased exposure of inhumanity in the media with inhumanity itself, not allowing the inhumanity we see to demoralize and paralyze us and not believing hateful behavior is somehow more persuasive and powerful than respectful behavior. This is partly done with the two kinds of literacy education we don’t hear enough about: media literacy and social literacy education, or social-emotional learning, not just digital literacy. Educating our children in these literacies is essential to effective participation and collective action in and with today’s very social digital media. They free citizens (not just digital ones) from fear, ignorance and inaction so they can “be the change” and protect themselves, each other and their communities. We are way behind in providing our children with these and other protective, self-actualizing tools, including resilience.

So where will “online safety” be in 2020? I’ve weighed in on its progress over the years. For example, in 2008, I suggested it was becoming obsolete, keynoted an Internet safety gathering at Google on that point, and explained why on PBS Frontline in its documentary “Growing Up Online.” Five years later, there was scholarly confirmation in a milestone study from UNH’s Crimes Against Children Research Center challenging Internet safety even as a subject to be taught. Not surprisingly, that paper didn’t get a lot of pickup in the news media. And now at the end of 2017, societies’ openness to innovation in this space seems to be going backwards – technopanic seems to be spiking again, probably because of the very portable, personal nature of the mobile platform and parents’ understandable discomfort with that (for more examples, see “Related links” below).

Predictions for 2020

But we have learned a lot – for example, New York City schools will soon be teaching social-emotional learning system-wide, Marc Brackett of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence told me this month; thanks to “fake news” and the hard work of organizations like NAMLE, there is greater and greater interest and consensus on the importance of media literacy education; I noticed at the giant international ISTE conference of tech educators last summer that “student voice” is a major theme now, with multiple sessions, and “digital citizenship” is totally mainstream (though please let’s not let it be a euphemism for classroom management or “online safety” rebranded).

So I have some predictions for online safety in 2020 too. We’ll see…

  • More demand for transparency around social media corporate practices, leading to…
  • More public awareness of industry best practices, further empowering users, and…
  • More calls for a multi-stakeholder, participatory model for media regulation – user, community and corporate self-regulation in addition to the government kind
  • More collaboration with youth as stakeholders in any discussion about their well-being and participation online and offline and…
  • More recognition of their digital rights internationally, hopefully with more Americans joining the conversation
  • Greater awareness of the need for education in the digital age literacies, which support self-regulation
  • Users waking up to their (and their children’s) powers as the users of, not just “the product” in and consumers of, social media
  • More understanding of meaningful connection, how it works and how social media can serve it when we’re awake to our powers and in the driver’s seat
  • More media literate users of all ages served by more tools such as the Trust Project’s Trust Indicators, FactCheck.org and others
  • A growing number of countries supporting youth digital rights possibly (hopefully) including the U.S.
  • An increasingly connected international discussion about online safety, working with cultural differences rather than seeing them as barriers to collaboration
  • More discussion about the impact of virtual reality and AI not just on employment but on human beings’ mental health (e.g., an interview about that with Carole Griggs, PhD, conscious-human-development adviser to tech companies, at a conference in Shanghai last summer)
  • More and better communication between parents and kids as parents become more aware of children’s participatory rights and a growing consensus on what digital activities are developmentally normative.

And that’s plenty for one blog post! More predictions can be found at Forbes.com from ConnectSafely.org’s Larry Magid. And now a look at past predictions (I still stand by them)….

Related links

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