Challenging ‘Internet safety’ as a subject to be taught

By Anne Collier

“Way back” in 2008 – at least a decade after “online safety” was starting to be seen as a subject that needed to be taught to children – I suggested that it was becoming obsolete. Now what I’m seeing is that it never really was a single stand-alone subject that could become obsolete. We’ll look back on it as a risk-prevention placeholder that society created until our research-based understanding of the Internet and youth online practices replaced the myths and misinformation that circulated in the public discourse for far too long.

“Internet safety” needs to be, logically will be, dispersed – seen as the digital part of many well-established areas of risk prevention. Clear evidence is found in a milestone study from the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. The authors – Lisa Jones, Kimberly Mitchell and Wendy Walsh – write that “‘Internet safety’ topics are a very broad and shifting mix of concerns, which makes it difficult to create comprehensive program logic around the entire problem as a set.” The most widely used Internet safety education (ISE) programs in the US “combine messages about any or all of the following topics: cyberbullying, problematic content (e.g., videos of fights, inappropriate pictures), internet predators, sexting, spam, e-theft, and illegal downloading.”

The researchers write that established risk prevention education wouldn’t combine such a range of topics in a single program. “For example,” they write, “most people would find it strange to have a 1-hour presentation for youth that covered driving safety, safe sex, the dangers of drug use, and plagiarism. Most of us would think that these very different issues needed to be handled separately and using different educational tactics.” So let’s take this as a cue for “Internet safety.”

‘Online’ risk, offline prevention/intervention

The authors don’t ask it explicitly, but to my mind their report raises an important question: Don’t all of these “Internet safety” risks show up in offline life, where they’re already addressed to some degree by laws, school policies, values and norms of behavior? This is an honest question (I’d love your response via email to anne[at] or in Comments below). Just for example…

  • The term “predators” became popularized – probably with the help of Dateline NBC’s long-running show “To Catch a Predator” – in the middle of the last decade, when what scholars refer to as a moral panic developed around social media. But the Internet and social media are not the source of this risk. In fact, “internet predator cases of a youth meeting an adult online, forming a romantic attachment, and meeting them in person is an extremely rare event,” the CCRC researchers write. It’s not an “Internet safety” issue. Child sexual abuse is a crime in which the victim almost always knows the perpetrator well in offline life, and evidence-based prevention education existed long before social media arrived (e.g., see Seattle-based Committee for Children’s research-based “Talking About Touching” personal safety program for kids in grades pre-K through 3). Society just needs to be sure it includes online communication tools in its lesson plans to help children recognize inappropriate communication as such wherever it turns up.
  • Cyberbullying is bullying and harassment in a new environment. A new environment may have some unique properties, such as instant widespread distribution, but its properties do not make it a whole new social problem. Social cruelty has had its expression on the phone, on school bathroom stall walls, on paper (you might remember “slam books”), and in many other media and places since time immemorial, including adults’ workplaces. Online versions must be addressed too, but we’re not starting from scratch, and we get closer to the solution to both online and offline versions with bullying-prevention education at least and – even better – social-emotional learning (see this).
  • Sexting is the digital version of a whole spectrum of sex-related activity that has been with us for a long time using older media, ranging from a form of sexual interplay between consenting partners to cruel behavior after a breakup to blackmail; sometimes it’s a form of sexual harassment (and young people need to learn to recognize it as such – see this). This is something to be covered in sexual health education that includes instruction about sexual harassment and dating violence.

Do you see what I mean? Why are we still teaching “Internet safety”? The Internet is embedded in and encompasses virtually all of human life, positive, negative and neutral. All that happens online is much more symptomatic (sometimes an early warning system) than a cause of social problems that we’ve been working on addressing since long before we had the Internet.

In fact, the CCRC researchers write that ISE seems to emphasize “removing evidence of problematic behavior instead of helping youth understand why the behavior itself is problematic (e.g., underage drinking, illegal behavior).” Think about that for a second: Internet safety education teaches kids to hide negative or deviant behavior rather than correct it. Do you see a problem with that? I do.

Other problems with Internet safety education cited in the CCRC report: that it…

  • “Fail[s] to incorporate critical elements of effective prevention education, including: 1) research-based messages; 2) skill-based learning objectives; 3) opportunities for youth to practice new skills; and 4) sufficient time for learning,” so it’s a “highly speculative and experimental undertaking whose success cannot be assumed.”
  • Uses scare tactics and exaggerates problems, making youth behavior and choices out to be worse than they are (and so, I would add, demeaning young people): “Research shows that most youth do not cyberbully, do not send sexual pictures, and internet predator abductions are rare,” which means that “youth are either going to discount the inflated numbers, be confused by them or, even worse, the messages could back-fire by providing youth with negative social norms.”
  • Tries to apply “stock safety messages” that “have critical problematic assumptions and under-developed program logic” to “complex social-emotional behaviors.”
  • Assumes ignorance in young people. For example, “telling youth to not cyber-bully or share sexual pictures with a boyfriend will likely have little effect on behavior, according to the experience of prevention science: Most youth already know these behaviors are wrong or risky, and those who behave in these ways either see the benefits outweighing the risks, or perhaps see no other options to handle strong emotions.”

And this is called “education.” But to be completely clear (and fair to the authors), they are critiquing Internet safety education, while I am challenging the underlying premise that “Internet safety” should be – or can be – taught.

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Part 2: So what should be taught?

What fuels my question about Internet safety even more is what the CCRC report – the result of a huge project that involved evaluating ISE programs, how they’re taught by educators and law enforcement people and what the outcomes have been – said about what should be taught even if the subject is “Internet safety.” What needs to be taught is skills, not just information, and certainly not all the inaccurate information so much “Internet safety education” has disseminated over nearly two decades.

Even if we stuck with just informing children rather than teaching them skills and even if educators could keep up with the research and have the will to share it accurately, teachers don’t have time even to inform children about every part of the large and growing range of behaviors and activities that occur online, much less teach the skills of effective use. Merely informing is not good prevention education anyway. It doesn’t change behavior, the authors write. [After surveying prevention programs in a number of “youth problem areas,” they developed what they call the KEEP (“Known Elements of Effective Prevention”) Checklist, which for example calls for a structured curriculum (not a one-off presentation) involving lessons that build on each other and teach skills through role-play, open-ended discussion/debate, and practice.]

Consequently, I propose that, as a society, we do two things:

  1. Disperse “Internet safety” into the many prevention education fields that already exist for offline life and are led by experts and long covered in schools but have been thrown under the ISE umbrella when the social problems they address have turned up online. I mention three of the prevention areas above – bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation – and the CCRC authors mention others, all of which have experts who can teach skills, e.g., recognition of discriminatory, harassing or manipulative behavior, refusal skills, and decisionmaking skills.
  2. And where digital media is concerned, teach the skills of today’s very social digital media: digital literacy, media literacy and social literacy, which together address both media-specific risk reduction and proficiency in participatory media use. This learning is not an add-on to the already packed school day; ideally it happens in core academic subjects wherever media old and new are employed, just as media literacy has long been part of language arts instruction.

I think the result will look like a vibrant, healthy blend of the Maker Movement, media literacy, and social-emotional competency (see this about the Maker Movement in media at the Making Thinking Happen blog). Which in turn spells greater student engagement, better academic performance and social success online and offline.

You may be wondering if I’m saying the Internet doesn’t bring anything new to human society and risk prevention. No, I’m not. There are some  new (media) environmental conditions that were first discussed by social media researcher danah boyd in her 2008 PhD dissertation. She called them “properties” (“persistence,” “searchability,” “replicability,” and “scalability”) and “dynamics” (“invisible audiences,” “collapsed contexts,” and “the blurring of public and private”) – and now some of those, e.g., “persistence,” are changing with the arrival of “ephemeral,” or disappearing, digital media in services such as Snapchat.

Those new conditions can be addressed in digital, media and social literacy instruction, which need to be taught as a whole because media is both social and digital. Social-emotional learning is a field in its own right, with evidence-based instruction that teaches skills which research shows increase academic as well as social efficacy online and offline – and, just like other offline skills and fields, needs to embrace media practices now.

The skills for a digital world, not just media

As for effective digital and media literacy instruction, in her 2011 book for teachers in grades 7-12, Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom, author and media professor Renee Hobbs addresses the digital and social nature of all the media students use. She puts forth five competencies that are “fundamental to how we [all, not just children] learn and communicate today”:

  • ACCESS: finding and sharing appropriate and relevant information and using media texts and technology tools well.
  • ANALYZE: using critical thinking to analyze message purpose, target audience, quality, veracity, credibility, point of view, and potential effects or consequences of messages.” As school administrator and author of The 21st Century Principal blog J. Robinson puts it in a post about Hobbs’s book, “this competency makes students effective consumers as well as conveyors of digital and media messaging.” This is the traditional media literacy piece that’s needed more than ever in this digital world.
  • CREATE: composing or generating content using creativity and confidence in self-expression, with awareness of purpose, audience, and composition techniques.” About this competency, Robinson writes, “Those who excel are content generators, so our students need this competency as well.” And Hobbs’s description, I would add, points to the mindfulness that’s essential for content creators and producers disseminating their work to, as social media researcher danah boyd put it, the “invisible publics” of digital media.
  • REFLECT: considering the impact of media and technology tools on our thinking and actions in daily life and applying social responsibility and ethical principles to our own identity, communication behavior, and conduct.” This competency is crucial to social media. Robinson blogged that “this skill of reflection helps our students become humane consumers and creators of digital and media content.”
  • ACT: working individually or collaboratively to share knowledge and solve problems in the family, the workplace, and the community and participating as a member of a community at local, regional, national and international levels.” Robinson writes that “this step involves getting students in the classroom connected to the world, providing support for their leadership development and collaboration, and developing integrity and accountability as they take their place as global citizens.” This is citizenship now, in our digital age (“digital citizenship” is, if anything, a subset).

These are the competencies that students need to navigate participatory media and culture. By providing access and opportunities to analyze, create, reflect and act as much with digital media as with older media right in core academic classes, schools are affording them the skills, community, and self-actualization that increase safety (resilience) as well as efficacy in and out of media. This is the real “Internet safety [or competency]” that needs to be taught in schools. As for the risks of offline life that over the past 20 years have been called “Internet risk,” they are addressed in schools if folded into the prevention education schools already do.

A year after I suggested in 2008 that Internet safety was obsolete, we ConnectSafely folk published “Online Safety 3.0,” in which we suggested that Internet safety is not the goal but the means to the goal: full, healthy participation in participatory media, culture and society. And now, from the research and the work of two national task forces on child online safety, we know that what protects children online is what protects them offline. These are: life skills, literacies and safeguards that are both internal – respect for self and others, resilience, empathy, and a strong inner guidance system (sometimes called a moral compass) – and external, such as good modeling, parenting and teaching by caring adults, peer mentoring, instruction in digital and media literacy, social-emotional learning, protective technology used thoughtfully, family and school rules, well-designed digital environments, and well-established laws against discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, and crime. It’s a lot, but it’s building on thousands of years of wisdom, research, social norms, and lawmaking. And it’s not really “Internet safety.” It’s time to move on!

[If US school officials are wondering how all this might sync up with CIPA, please click here.]

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