For the past 13 years, countries across Europe have celebrated Safer Internet Day on the second Tuesday of February. And, since 2014, the event has also been celebrated in the United States, hosted by ConnectSafely.org, the nonprofit Internet safety group that I co-founded.
This year’s U.S. Safer Internet Day event will be at Universal Studios Hollywood. About 300 high school and middle school students will attend and it will be live streamed, beginning at 10 a.m. Pacific time.
The event will feature student leaders, Instagram star and student filmmaker Leo Sheng and a guest appearance by WWE wrestler and reality star Mike “The Miz” Mizanin. More about “The Miz” later. Note that the day’s first name is “safer,” not “safe.” Everyone involved in Internet safety programs seeks to make the Internet, mobile devices and other connected technology as safe as possible, but no technology as powerful as the Internet will ever be 100 percent safe. It’s a matter of knowing how to reduce and manage risk and conduct yourself in a way that is as protective as possible.
The good news is that, despite claims to the contrary, connected technology is reasonably safe. Sure there are issues such as bullying and harassment, posts that might embarrass us later, financial scams and even rare cases of children and adults being sexually exploited by people they meet online.
But, as with any risk, you have to put it into perspective. To me, going online is like flying. There are very well publicized cases of things going horribly wrong, but the probability of any given person being seriously harmed remains quite low. Still, one horrible incident is one too many and, like flying, there are annoyances that we all experience online that we’d love to see minimized.
This year, the global theme of Safer Internet Day is “Play your part for a better Internet.” And, as with safer, the word “better” has real meaning.
Better means not just making the Internet safer, but making it more accessible, more open and even more useful for everyone. Sure, the day is dedicated to “safety,” but just as “peace is not merely the absence of war” (attributed to Albert Einstein), safety is not just the absence of danger. It’s about people thriving, being productive and, of course, being kind.
To that end, Safer Internet Day will feature a student panel titled “Rejecting Hate, Building Resilience & Growing the Good Online.” Moderated by student filmmaker, Instagram personality and transgender activist Leo Sheng, it will emphasize how young people can become activists and do their part towards building a better, kinder and more gentle Internet. But it’s not just young people who need to hear this lesson. Adults, including people who run for office, should be role modeling good behavior even as they vigorously compete for votes. Coincidently, this year’s Safer Internet Day is on the same day as the New Hampshire primary but, in the unlikely event any of the candidates have time that day, I bet they could learn something from these students.
And speaking of people who can sometimes be controversial, you might be wondering why a wrestler is part of the program. Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, a WWE “Superstar” and a former competitor on the reality show Tough Enough, may seem like an unlikely person to be speaking to students about cyberbullying. That was certainly my first reaction when he was suggested.
But I looked into his background, watched a few of his performances and came to the realization that even though wrestlers can be quite mean to each other in the ring, that doesn’t mean that they act that way off screen any more than actors who play villains are also villains in real life.
WWE wrestlers, in partnership with DoSomething.org, Special Olympics, The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), StopBullying.org, National PTA and other organizations actively promote diversity and kindness in the real world — where it matters. I admit I’m not a wrestling fan, but many kids are and if his message resonates, more power to him. The Miz will talk about how he was bullied and belittled as a kid and the difference between playing a bad guy as a job vs. being a decent man in real life, which is a lesson that I hope the students in the audience will take to heart.
Maybe it’s time for others who play tough guys in public to show their gentler side, speak out against bullying and point out that our future lies in our ability not just to get along, but to support each other, regardless of profession, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, appearance or religion. I’ll be thinking about that on Feb. 9 as I participate in Safer Internet Day and that night when I watch the election returns from New Hampshire.