The next version of ‘Internet safety’: A look under the hood

“Under the bonnet,” colleagues across the Atlantic and Down Under would probably say. I put it that way because this post is a bit more e-safety geeky than usual. Parents and caregivers who don’t geek out on this topic might find this mildly interesting, though, because we’re talking about kids’ wellbeing in media and so much more. Going forward, the value of “Internet safety” – if the concept doesn’t eventually just melt into online/offline risk prevention and instruction in media, digital and social literacy, as I suggested last year – will be measured by how much it increases children’s literacy, competency and success, as well as safety, in this networked world.

It has been just over five years since we ConnectSafely folk published “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth,” but clearly we’re not the only ones who feel it’s time for Internet safety to get an “upgrade” now. The Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference is this week and has the title “Redefining Online Safety.” How do we do that while “the Internet” keeps changing, with mobile’s predominance even in the US, making media ever more personal, customizable, accessible 24/7 and – in some cases – ephemeral? [Internet safety messaging used to include cautions against the “permanent searchable archive” that the Internet had become; well, disappearing media solves that and other problems we’ve noted but now raises new concerns.]

So what does “Internet safety” look like going forward? Here are what I see to be the key elements under the hood of this “concept car” we might call Online Safety 4.0:

  • Youth participation: In a user-driven media environment, safety doesn’t happen without the full participation of whoever we want to keep safe. Does that not seem intuitive? And yet this condition has been conspicuously absent from Internet safety discussion all over the world. What we’re slowly moving away from is the opposite insidious premise that youth are only potential victims, perpetrators (in the case of cyberbullying) or at best passive beneficiaries of adults’ campaigns, policies, protections, etc. Participation is as much a right as protection is. Youth participation goes beyond youth having a voice in the matter.
  • Better sense of balance: Encouraging everybody – individuals, families, school communities, policymakers, etc. – to seek and strike a balance between…
    • internal and external safety “tools”
    • self-regulation and external regulation – regulation and policymaking at family, school and government levels
    • social, community, crowd-sourced or bottom-up “regulation” (social norms) and imposed/top-down regulation (see also this 2011 post)
    • individual solutions and shared solutions for user-generated media
    • the three basic categories of social-media or digital-age rights (see No. 3 below), including growing interest in children’s participation rights in a digital age
  • Greater integration: Just as 1) social digital media are increasingly embedded into everyday “real life,” 2) bullying and cyberbullying are more and more enmeshed, and 3) the digital versions of crime and anti-social behaviors (sexual harassment, racial discrimination, defamation, sexual exploitation, extortion, etc.) will increasingly be addressed by “real world” laws, “Internet safety” needs to be folded into a) “real world” risk-prevention education (in line with the public health field’s “levels of prevention” framework) and b) literacy education (digital, media and social literacy). This is based on a milestone study by and many conversations with Lisa Jones of University of New Hampshire and is part of the Aspen Task Force report of June 2014 (one of the task force’s 6 recommendations). Moving in this direction would advance connected learning and finally make education more relevant to our children.
  • Putting Internet safety in context: Even back in 2008, online safety was becoming obsolete. I offered some reasons why and ideas for where it might go, but what I didn’t come out and say is how we were holding back our children by being so laser-focused on Internet safety as the goal rather than one of the tools for getting there – as just a means to the end of full, competent participation in this networked world. I wrote that later in our 2009 Online Safety 3.0 doc. I predict we’re going to lose the nearsightedness and put Internet safety in context: the context offered by the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. In that framework, online protection is one of the three areas of youth rights – Protection, Provision, Participation – in the Convention (whether or not the US ever ratifies it).
  • A truly global discussion. No more merely national Internet safety task forces (see this about what was probably the US’s last one in 2009-’10). Going forward, the Internet safety discourse will increasingly be as international as the medium it’s about. We’ll see less overlap and more coordination of research and programs. Law enforcement led the way in international cooperation, e.g., with the International Center for Missing & Exploited Children and a network of national hotlines for the reporting of child abuse images. The European Commission, researchers and governments throughout the European Union also pioneered this with the ongoing research originally called EU Kids Online and a “three-legged stool model” for youth online protection with an Internet hotline, helpline and user education center in many EU countries. We’re also seeing EU Kids Online and other European researchers at conferences here in the US more and more (for example, here) and increasing cooperation and coordination among scholars, thought leaders and development workers all over the planet (e.g., see DigitallyConnected.org by UNICEF and Harvard’s Berkman Center and this about it). Yet another example is a new international association of national Internet helplines for youth, families and schools.

These are the key characteristics I’m seeing of a sustainable, viable Net safety going forward. What are you seeing? Go ahead and geek out with me on this. It’s got to be crowd-sourced!