“Youth Safety on a Living Internet,” the title of the just-released report of the Online Safety & Technology Working Group (OSTWG), is significant. It says a lot about the state of youth Internet safety because it says a lot about the state of the Internet now. This is not just technology or even “content” we’re talking about, as we all know. It’s behavior, or sociality, every beit as much as content. The Internet, as we’re all using it now, is not just the product of humanity’s creativity, learning, and sociality; it mirrors them as well as serves as a platform for them. It is another “place” where our creations and sociality play out in real time.
What does that mean where youth online safety’s concerned? A number of things, our report brought out (I served as co-chair of the OSTWG, along with Hemanshu Nigam, formerly chief security officer of MySpace parent News Corp., now founder of SSP Blue). Here’s just a sampler of what this means for parents, educators, and policymakers:
* New meaning of “content”. We’re talking about behavioral as well as informational content. It’s basically impossible to block behavior happening in real time the way filtering software blocks content: It’s like trying to isolate a single behavior from ongoing social interaction and/or a single child’s part of a social circle’s activity.
* Embedded in real life. Young people’s social lives are both online and offline. Here’s what this means for “parental control” tools and Net-safety education: 1) for the former, it means that blocking or deleting something online doesn’t usually solve whatever’s going on between the people involved – in kids’ case, digitally enabled 24/7 school drama; and 2) because online risk isn’t something new and separate from “real life” risk, online-safety education loses relevance to youth if treated as something separate from their offline lives or a special course added to school curricula, as we have handled it to date.
* Risk spectrum matches real life. Because the Internet mirrors and serves as a platform for virtually all of human life, it mirrors the full spectrum of offline risks, not just the few featured in popular TV shows or covered in news reports focused on the most extreme outcomes. Consider cyberbullying, the risk identified by the 2009 Berkman Center report as the one that affects the most kids; cyberbullying isn’t a single identifiable behavior, and its range of causes requires a multidisciplinary, whole-school-community approach (see this).
* The Net’s everywhere. This is in terms of both location and devices. It may be filtered on computers at school, but much less on the cellphones a rapidly growing number of students take with them to school, where it’s tough to enforce policies concerning devices that fit in pockets.
* Constantly changing. That goes for the Internet, its content, and its users. These dynamic conditions mean that 1) once-and-for-all, one-size-fits-all solutions don’t exist, 2) it’s tough to regulate or legislate behavior, and 3) we need a very large “toolbox” with a diverse array of “tools” for protecting kids at different developmental stages and in different situations (we have that, and their numbers and effectiveness are growing, but there’s always room for improvement). Those tools include education, law enforcement, many types of “parental control” technologies, content ratings, family and school policies, and privacy and safety features in Web sites and on devices.
* Good citizenship is protective. Because media is now an environment where behavior occurs, just as in our physical environment, we ruin it for ourselves and others with mean, degrading behavior (see a 2007 finding in Archives of Pediatrics that aggressive behavior increases the aggressor’s risk). The flipside is that civil behavior reduces risk, is protective, which is why our report called for lessons in citizenship – online and offline – pre-K-12 as a national priority. In a social-media environment, children produce too much too fast to stay safe while avoiding the responsibility of protective behaviors such as civility and critical thinking. Which calls for…
* New media literacy training too. Because the Internet is increasingly user-driven, users need to understand that they’re stakeholders in their own wellbeing online. Kids need to understand that their own actions and behaviors have a lot to do with how positive or negative their online experiences are. This points to the need for a new kind of media-literacy instruction – the kind that develops the “filtering software” in kids’ heads, which is much more nimble than technology or laws, usually improves with age, and goes with them wherever they go. Media literacy has always developed that filter for information consumed and is needed more than ever. The much-needed new part is critical thinking about what’s outgoing, about what we text, post, share, and upload as much as what we consume. Which is why the OSTWG’s Online Safety Education subcommittee recommended education in new media literacy nationwide (see p. 32 of the report).
* More social media in school. Because the Internet is part of their lives and they’re living parts of their lives on the Internet, youth need guidance in online as much as offline expression and sociality. That will happen when social media are at school as well as at home. When he spoke to the OSTWG last September, USC media professor Henry Jenkins said youth are engaged in four activities “central to the life of young people in participatory culture: circulating media, connecting with each other, creating media, and collaborating with each other.” He told us that it’s crucial for them to be engaging in these activities in school so that all youth have equal opportunity to participate in what is now more participatory culture than merely participatory media, and so that school can play a guiding role in their use of new media as much as that of traditional media. Young people are “looking for guidance often [in their use of new media] but don’t know where to turn,” Jenkins said. That’s a key recommendation of the OSTWG (pp. 7 and 33 of the report).
Because 1) my readers are mostly parents and educators and 2) for the sake of good parenting, school policy, education reform, risk prevention, and law enforcement, it’s crucial, I feel, that we collectively get this part down, I’ve focused here mostly on the Online-Safety Education and Child-Protection Technologies parts of this nearly 150-page report. Please don’t miss their recommendations on pp. 30 and 66, respectively.
But there is so much more (much of it detailed in the coverage links below), including important findings on the state of Internet service providers’ retention of user data and child-pornography reporting for law enforcement, which the statute that formed us required us to look into. You’ll find in the child-pornography-reporting section (p. 85) that great strides have been made in making data preservation and reporting more efficient and effective but that more research and communication among stakeholders is recommended. And you’ll find some candor in the Data Retention Subcommittee’s report concerning the understandable tension between consumer privacy and data retention for law enforcement purposes. All three key voices in the discussion – those of law enforcement, the Internet industry, and civil libertarians – are represented in that discussion (p. 100).
So safety on an increasingly lifelike Internet that’s embedded in kids’ lives needs to be kid-centric, not tech-centric. It’s important to help each other see that this is not scary new territory for anyone who loves and works with young people. We may – and increasingly need to – use some social media and technologies in the process of doing our parenting, teaching, law-enforcement, health-care, and social work, so that we can work with them in the media they love. But we’re still just parenting, teaching, etc., doing the parenting and work we’ve long known and loved. Kids can help us with the technology part!
OSTWG report coverage
* “Report to Congress: Media Literacy, Not Fear, Can Protect Youth Online,” by OSTWG Education Subcommittee chair and ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid at the Huffington Post
* “New report: Youth Safety on a Living Internet,” by Dr. Justin Patchin, co-author of Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying
* “Scare tactics, blocking sites can be bad for kids,” by Elinor Mills at CNET
* “Keeping Kids Safe Online Report Highlights Usual Suspects: Education, Parental Empowerment,” by Emma Llanso at the Center for Democracy & Technology, which was represented on the OSTWG
* “Online Safety and Technology Working Group (OSTWG) Final Report Released,” by OSTWG member and OSTWG Parental-Control Technologies Subcommittee chair Adam Thierer
* “Final report from OSTWG Released: Call for Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy,” by Norton’s Internet Safety Advocate, Marian Merritt
* “Report: Scaring Kids About Online Threats is Counter-Productive” at AVN News
* The report itself – “Youth Safety on a Living Internet” – in pdf at the site of our federal government host, NTIA (National Telecommunications & Information Administration) and downloadable at Scribd.com
* On the report of the last task force I served on, the Berkman Center’s “Key crossroads for Net safety: ISTTF report released”
* Background on my co-chair, Hemanshu Nigam: “Milestone for Net safety: Hemu moves on”
* “Most teen social Web users well-adjusted”