Online safety is not just ‘about life’

One of the sessions at the Family Online Safety Institute conference that was held in Washington last November focused on re-defining online safety. During the session, a couple of smart people suggested that we should drop the word “online” from online safety and drop “digital” when we talk about digital citizenship. It’s not about the online world, they say, “it’s about life.”

I respectfully disagree.

The argument

I’m not sure I can do justice to their argument, but I’ll try and hope to spawn a conversation where others can perhaps better articulate the argument that there is really no need to focus on online risks and harms because, at least for youth, there is a blurring of online and offline life. One argument – and I agree with this one – is that negative online behaviors, such as cyberbullying, are reflections of offline behaviors and, indeed, research has shown that cyberbullying is often an extension of school-based bullying. There is also the argument that the antidote to many potential online dangers is the same critical thinking that’s always been important to protect yourself, long before the Internet came along. I agree, which is why I sometimes start my Internet safety talks by saying that most of what I’m about to say could have been said by your great grandmother – treat people respectfully, think before you act and be aware that not everything you see or hear is true.

Things my great grandmother couldn’t know

But there are some things my great grandmother could have never anticipated and, as wise as she might have been.

For example, the Internet has unleashed cadres of criminals who make their living stealing our personal information and our online credentials in an effort to defraud us. Sure, criminals, including bank robbers have been around for centuries, but they were not able to rob banks from across the ocean and they weren’t able to empty people’s accounts simply by pressing a few keys. Knowing how to create and use strong passwords, to use security tools and configure devices for maximum protection is not something any of us learned in elementary school. And they’re not skills we would need if we weren’t digitally connected These are specialized skills that we need to go online and use mobile devices and they are part of what I call “online safety.” Banks too have to learn to new ways to protect themselves. Strong safes and armed guards, though not perfect, worked reasonably well when Jesse James was alive, but they’re useless against cyberthieves.

New privacy threats

All generations have had privacy threats but never before has it been possible to sift through thousands of personal messages, follow someone’s every move or track their location without having to dispatch a spy to literally follow them around. Even tapping a phone, in the landline days, required sending someone over to a house to attach alligator clips to the line or getting a court order to get the phone company to set up a tap. Now it’s possible to do it remotely just by installing malware on someone’s smartphone. Knowing how to use anti-tracking tools, to configure your privacy settings on apps and sites and to understand encryption is not something they taught in one-room school houses – it’s part of what we need to learn as digital citizens and very different from what our grandparents needed to know.

Bullying and sexting

And while I agree that cyberbullying is just bullying online, it does add some dimensions, such as the ability to stick around forever or involve far more people than are likely to witness a schoolyard brawl. I’m not saying it’s worse than physical bullying – it probably isn’t – and I know it’s less prevalent, but it’s nonetheless different.

There same arguments can be made about sexting – its been around since at least the invention of the Polaroid camera, but the ability to distribute images online to hundreds of people at a time is something our grandparents never had to worry about. The same is true with other reputation busters. When I was in college it was common to drink beer in the dorm room, but we never had to worry about the administration or our parents seeing pictures of it on Facebook.

There is also disinhibition, which can allow people to forget they’re interacting with real people. Just as being surrounded by thousands of pounds of metal can make a mild-mannered motorist into an angry driver, interacting with people through screens instead of in-person can have an impact on how you treat them. It shouldn’t, but it can.

I could go on, but I think you get my point. Yes, the net is part of life and yes many people, including most young people (and plenty of adults, myself included) are so engaged in technology that it’s often difficult to distinguish between online and offline life. But that doesn’t change the fact that what happens online can have different characteristics than analogous things that happen in the so called “real world.”

Why we need online safety

There are plenty of analogies to demonstrate why there needs to continue to be a focus on “online” safety vs. just safety:

  • When you go to the beach or a pool, you need to be careful not to drown or get sunburned, but when you walk in the woods, you have a totally different set of risks. Both are “life,” but if I were preparing my daughter for a beach trip, I would give her very different advice than I would if she were headed to the mountains.
  • Sports teach a lot of life skills, but if you’re a little league baseball coach, you need to warn your kids to beware of being hit by a ball or a flying bat. High school football coaches have to warn how to make sure you’re not injured when being tackled. The risks are simply different as are the things you do and equipment you use to minimize those risks.
  • Cars are part of life and safe driving does involve the same type of good judgement that will keep you safe in other activities, but no-one would disagree that you need special skills to safely drive a vehicle.

Online safety shouldn’t be taught in a vacuum

Having said this, I agree that online safety isn’t a stand-alone subject. When we learned to write, we didn’t take a course in pencil safety but our teacher might have warned us to be aware that you can hurt yourself with a pencil. Cooking classes focus on how to make great food but – at some point in our lives – we did learn that knives can be dangerous. We learn to drive so we can get from place to place and enjoy the ride but, along the way, we learned auto safety. It wasn’t a special class – it was part of driver’s education.

Online safety too needs to be integrated into all subjects. There is no special expertise when it comes to being safe online, but its something we learn as we leran to use technology to enhance our lives.

So, yes, it is about “life,” but it’s also a unique set of skills that we need to live our lives in the 21st century.