UK: 2 valuable view on Net safety, Part 1

Two milestone documents out of the UK – one a 200-page report requested by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and called "The Byron Review" after its lead author, clinical psychologist and TV personality, Dr. Tanya Brown, and the other a set of guidelines for social-networking-service best practices issued by the Home Office itself – have just been released. With the exception of references to British law and government, both are relevant wherever young people are online, including in the US, where we haven't yet been able to come up with a consensus on best practices (even though the world's most popular social sites are US-based) and haven't seen a comprehensive Net-safety report since Web 1.0 days (the COPA Commission in 2000 and the "Youth, Pornography, and the Internet" report of 2002). Maybe some contributions like these will emerge from the work of the Internet Safety Task Force that just got started at Harvard's Berkman Center.

This week a look at the Byron report – not a summary, just what I feel is universally relevant and merits highlighting. Next week: the Home Office's guidance.

The Byron Review

Right up front, in her introduction, Dr. Byron says something important about risk and child development: "My Review is about … [young people's] right to take the risks that form an inherent part of their development by enabling them to play video games and surf the net in a safe and informed way." In focus groups, she listened to young people, thereby "putting them at the heart of this Review – and by replacing emotion with evidence – I hope I have provided some very necessary focus to what is a very necessary debate."

* An individual thing. She advises her readers to factor in children's individuality, developmental stages, and what we know about teenage brain development in looking at both the risks and benefits of their Internet and videogame use. In talks, emails, and our ConnectSafely.org forum, I've often suggested to parents that their own children, if communicative, are by far their best sources on what social networking is like, not the news media, because the way they socialize online and off is a reflection of who they are. Social networking is as individual as socializing, and generalizations aren't useful. So it's good to see a psychologist saying: "We need to take into account children’s individual strengths and vulnerabilities, because the factors that can discriminate a ‘beneficial’ from a ‘harmful’ experience online and in video games will often be individual factors in the child…. That means focusing on the child, what we know about how children’s brains develop, how they learn and how they change as they grow up. This is not straightforward" (for more on teenage brains, see point no. 2.29 on p. 35).

* The report's balance: "Having considered the evidence, I believe we need to move from a discussion about the media ‘causing’ harm to one which focuses on children and young people, what they bring to technology and how we can use our understanding of how they develop to empower them to manage risks…" (p. 2). To "manage risks" I'd add "manage their own online behavior." In other words, by teaching our children respect, civility and citizenship online as well as off, we improve their chances for safe, constructive, and productive use of the Net and mobile phones.

* Kids' risk management. Why "manage" and not remove risks? "Risk taking," Byron says (p. 20), "is part of child development – part of our drive to learn and to succeed. Particularly in adolescence, risk taking is not only a developmental imperative but also a lifestyle choice: it is driven by developments taking place in the brain and it is an important part of identity construction. Taking risks is something children need to do to reach self-actualisation (the process of fully developing ones personal potential…), and most children get pleasure from taking risks." This seems to reflect a growing recognition that the participatory Web + developing adolescent brains = a highly volatile formula (see "The 'Wild West' metaphor" below).

* The other digital divide. Byron says the main driver of concerns about youth online risk is the "generational digital divide," the parental anxiety produced by 1) kids being more tech-literate than adults and 2) adults being stuck back in Web 1.0 ("many adults being of the Web 1.0 generation, using the internet to search for information or for shopping while our children are the Web 2.0 generation, using the technology in increasingly sophisticated ways to create and upload their own material" – p. 23). I agree, and it's one reason why we individually and collectively overreact, which can increase youth risk because it breaks down parent-child communication that can help mitigate risky teen behavior and tends to send teens "underground" (see also "Banning doesn't work" below).

* Parenting in a risk-averse society. Apparently it's the case on both sides of the Atlantic and a challenge for parents trying not to overreact. Byron writes, "Most parents want to parent their children as well as they can and will take active steps to seek out approaches to enable them to do the best they can for their children. They want to give their children the best start in life by ensuring that they are healthy, happy, cared for and educated. For parents an area of great concern is around harm coming to their child. Indeed such parental anxieties can be fuelled by news stories that contain graphic details about children being abducted, harmed or killed. Some commentators have speculated that increasing parental anxieties are significant factors in the way restrictions are placed on children’s freedoms – for example, in the way children’s play has been significantly curtailed by parents who fear letting them outside. We are creating a parenting atmosphere where there is a 'zero risk' policy. The safety of children should be a central concern for parents and society as a whole. However, our concerns, and our response to those concerns, must be proportionate" (p. 206). Hear, hear! on all the above.

* Where the risk actually is. Or rather where it originates: usually in "RL" (real life), not online. The online-safety field is still young, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that, from what I'm seeing in the research, the term "online safety" may already be obsolete – or necessarily heading toward obsolescence. Why? Because young people make little distinction between online and offline, and the Internet increasingly mirrors "real life" for them and humanity as a whole. Research is also increasingly indicating that the young people most at risk online are those most at risk offline, and we need to get a lot of expertise other than that of online-safety advocates like me into the discussion – for example, the expertise of child-development specialists, pediatricians, social workers, and psychologists. Though risky behaviors and activities are acted out and reinforced online, the Internet is not the problem itself so much as both aggravator (negative) and tool for understanding and helping vulnerable teens (positive).

* Banning doesn't work. Nor do other blanket "solutions." My comment just above is reflected in a way I haven't seen articulated before in Chapter 4 of Byron's study (p. 87): "Harmful behaviours are discussed online in a range of different ways, some of which may be more negative for young people to be involved in. However, they may provide an outlet for young people who feel they have no other way to express their feelings. Allowing these discussions to take place in mainstream areas of the internet, where there are responsible content hosts, means that steps can be taken to put them in context…. Banning such content risks driving vulnerable young people away to more obscure sites, where efforts to provide context might not be present."

* A flipside to consider. "In fact," Byron continues, "it has been argued that banning such content from mainstream sites might draw attention to harmful behaviours in a way that makes them seem more attractive…. It is also important to remember that if troubled young people are able to discuss their feelings online, it allows us as a society to recognise these issues exist and, as best we can, inform our approach to dealing with them in the offline world."

* More on phones, gaming community, etc. I was surprised by several things in the report: 1) that mobile phones didn't have their own chapter – they were mainly in a section about children accessing Web content away from home (for years I've been seeing British media reports about bullying on phones there); 2) that, though online gaming and virtual worlds are rapidly catching up with console gaming in popularity, the Conclusion on videogames risks (p. 154) focused on content and "addiction," not on contact, for example in the Xbox Live community and online worlds and games; and…

* The "Wild West" metaphor. The third thing that surprised me was the strange take on this much-used metaphor in the report's Conclusion (p. 206): "The sphere of new media is sometimes described as being like the ‘Wild West’ – a landscape populated by cynical, selfish characters with no regard for the welfare of children." Byron kind of misses the flavor of that lawless, uncontrollable, scary, Darwinian time and place, and – though a virtual "place" – the social Web, with its real-world impact, isn't much different (see this week's awful story about teen bullying in Florida or last year's "extreme cyberbullying" cases in New Zealand or the current "Naked photo-sharing trend" in a number of US states). "Throughout the internet and video games industries, Government and regulators, the law enforcement community, the charitable and voluntary sector, and the world of education and children’s services there are countless individuals committed to supporting children and parents to deal with the risks that new technologies may present." No question about it, nevertheless these cases still come up.

* What we can work toward. Helpfully, because the challenges are many, Byron organizes them into three "strategic objectives" for children's online safety on p. 62 of her report:

1. "Reduce availability [of harmful contact and contact to online kids] … and the conduciveness of platforms to harmful and inappropriate conduct"
2. "Restrict access … and reduce … harmful and inappropriate conduct"
3. "Increase resilience: Equip children to deal with exposure to harmful and inappropriate content and contact, and equip parents to help their children deal with these things and parent effectively around incidences of harmful and inappropriate conduct by their children."

We all – parents, Internet companies, advocates, government, law enforcement, researchers – have been working on the first two since the early '90s, and the effort continues, with no end in sight. The third is, through education, the most immediately actionable. It reinforces what some of us have been saying on the US side of the pond for some time: that it's increasingly imperative to help children develop the filter between their ears – critical thinking and media literacy, so they can think not only about what they're reading, seeing, and hearing online and on phones, but also about what they're saying, doing, and uploading.

Related links

* The Byron Review (there are links on this page to the full report, the executive summary, and a summary for children and teens, all in pdf format)
* "Byron urges social-networking safety code" at The Guardian
* "At a glance: The Byron Review" at the BBC
* A commentary in The Independent
* A commentary in The Guardian
* Microsoft's response in The Telegraph.


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