What the Internet safety community can learn from the TSA failure

By Larry Magid

4119819621_371a51262e_oAs has been widely reported, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) failed in 67 out of 70 tests when government agents were successfully able to sneak potential weapons past airport checkpoints. These are the same checkpoints that confiscate bottles of water and shampoo with more than 3 fluid ounces.

The revelation reminds me a bit of the way we try to protect children on the Internet with applications designed to block porn or warn parents if kids are bullied or bullying others online along with campaigns to rid the Internet of dangerous child predators.

Like airport checkpoints, these tools do little if anything to keep children safe. Instead, they create a sense of false security and, just like banning large bottles of shampoo from planes, “protect” against threats that often aren’t really threats.

The reality is that the kids who are most at-risk online are the ones who are also most at-risk offline and — in very many cases — these children come from homes where the parents are not fully engaged in their lives. So, offering anti-bullying apps to parents who are engaged enough to purchase, install and monitor those apps will do nothing to protect the kids who are at most risk.

These apps, along with much of the advice given out by so-called Internet safety experts, often fail to deal with the real risks associated with being online. Sure, you can block kids from looking at porn from school or even home computers, but if the kids really want to see porn, they’ll find ways around the filters via mobile phones and tablets or other devices that aren’t filtered. And anyone who thinks they can combat bullying by controlling or even monitoring what kids are doing with their devices, probably doesn’t realize that most bullying takes place in the physical world — typically at school –rather than online and even “cyberbullying” is often related to what is going on in the child’s offline relationships.

download (1)Sexting is about relationships, not devices

There are apps that try to prevent kids from sending and receiving nude or partially nude pictures — so-called “sexts” — but sexting isn’t about technology, it’s about relationships and the real tragedy associated with sexting is less the fact that kids sometimes send them to intimate partners and more about how some who receive such images (thankfully, relatively few) have violated the trust of the senders by sharing them with others.

There are even apps that limit how long kids can stay online (a worthy goal) but — again — they are focused on the device not the kid. With so many devices at our children’s disposal, they need more than just timers on devices — they need activities and sometimes reminders that there is more to life than looking at screens.

I’m not against airport screening — it probably helps to some extent, but the real reason why we’re safer now than before 9/11 is hardened doors protecting cockpits and heightened awareness of passengers that it’s OK to intervene if someone onboard threatens an aircraft. Likewise, children are safer online if all of us — parents, teachers and other kids — are given permission to reach out and help and act as upstanders rather than bystanders if a child is at risk.

Likewise, I’m not opposed to all parental controls. They have their place, especially for kids who take extraordinary risks, but like those TSA checkpoints, they’re far from foolproof.