In defense of Internet safety education

There has been some discussion lately over whether there is still a need for Internet safety education. I say yes.

It’s true, as some argue, that safety messages from the 90’s are way out-of-date. We no longer need to dwell over the highly exaggerated risk of child predators or the panic over Internet pornography. While online predators do exist, there’s a much higher likelihood of a child or teen being harmed by someone they know — even a close family member — than someone they meet online. Unwanted porn is still a minor problem but most young people know how to avoid it and — after more than 20 years of teens and children going online — we’ve seen little evidence to suggest that great harm has occurred as a result of it. In fact, over the past 20 years, according to David Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, most of the sexual- and crime-related dangers associated with being young have gotten better, not worse, since kids started using the Internet in large numbers.

Online problems

Still, there are dangers, issues and problems associated with or exacerbated by the Internet and mobile technology. Yes, many of these problems also exist offline, but the same can be said for the types of injuries one can get playing sports or riding in a car. But just because you can break your arm at home just as easily as you can on a soccer field or in a car, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for sports- and automotive-safety programs.

Privacy, which we didn’t talk much about in the 90’s, is certainly high on that list. While protecting one’s privacy has always been a challenge (i.e. small-town gossip going back centuries), the Internet and mobile technology have created opportunities for privacy problems on a grand scale. For one thing, there is what we post. It’s now very easy to post information that might embarrass yourself or others or reveal secrets that perhaps you ought not to share. There is also the issue of things that companies know about us. Anyone who uses a search engine, an online email service or a social network, is leaving breadcrumbs for companies to follow. What’s more, thanks to third-party tracking cookies, some of that information is getting into the hands of companies that we might not even know exist. It’s a serious issue that needs serious thought by consumers, regulators and companies. And everyone — including children and teens — needs to learn how to at least limit what others can find out about them. Plus, thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the U.S. and other) governments have the capacity to track us as well and given the enormous power of government over our lives, that too can be a serious problem.

Security is another Internet safety issue that has gotten worse over the years. It seems like every day brings another major security breach where we learn about the vulnerability of our usernames and passwords, credit card information or email. There are lots of professionals in government and the private sector who are working to beef up security but there are plenty of criminals out there finding ways to gain entry into our personal information. It’s a cat-and-mouse game and, right now, the “good guys” are way behind. While there is no way to be 100% hacker proof, there are ways families can improve their security and use secure and unique passwords.

Reputation management is something we thought about in the 90’s but it’s a bigger issue now thanks to social networking and smartphone apps that make it very easy to impulsively post things that can embarrass us now or in the future. A lot of young people are savvy when it comes to avoiding posting things that can get them into trouble but there are plenty of people (including lots of adults) who need to rethink their posting habits.

Bullying and “trolling” have been around forever and it’s true that among young people, so-called “cyberbullying” is often an extension of school-yard issues. But the Internet and phones do change the equation for a number of well-known reasons, including the ability for mean comments to stick around and be passed around with lightning speed. Plus, the Net has created new ways to bully like impersonating someone by getting hold of their phone or password and posting negative things as if they had written them, or passing around inappropriate pictures of someone that are now so easy to take and distribute thanks to new technology.

And I know from personal experience that there are lots of “trolls” out there who are more than happy to say nasty and vicious things about people they know and people they don’t know. There are folks who might be reasonably polite in the real world who have no qualms about being cruel online.

Only somewhat like the real world

It’s true that you are the same person whether you’re online or with others in physical spaces, but there are things about so-called “cyberspace” that change the way some people behave. One of these is what’s called “disinhibition,” where people feel that the Net gives them the anonymity or distance to act out in ways they wouldn’t act in person. It’s like road rage. I’ve seen drivers scream or exhibit rude hand gestures in traffic in ways that they might never do if they bumped into someone on the sidewalk. When you’re online, you can feel even more insulated from people around you but — trust me — those are real people on the “other side of the screen.”

Another factor is that what is posted online can stick around for a long long time and be easily forwarded. While that is possible in the real word, it’s a lot harder than it is online where “copy and paste” means that nothing is truly ephemeral. And of course, negative text messages, email and social networking posts can rear their ugly heads at any time, day or night.


A landmark study on the effectiveness of Internet Safety Education (ISE) by Lisa Jones, Kimberly Mitchell and Wendy Walsh, documents problems and limitations of some of the educational programs and materials that have been used in recent years, but it is by no means an indictment against the notion of Internet safety education. Instead, it points out some of the shortcomings of the programs it evaluated including the observation that, “As a whole, the ISE field has been slow to include research.” The authors correctly point out that “this failure to establish research-supported program theory means that most ISE is a highly speculative and experimental undertaking, whose success cannot be assumed.” The authors also note that:

      • ISE education must move beyond a reliance on stock safety messages and the use of single lessons when addressing complex social-emotional behaviors. 
      • ISE program developers need to reduce their reliance on dramatic statements and scare tactics even further.
      • “Internet safety” goals are very disparate — different educational strategies are going to be needed for different ISE topics.
      • The field needs to use research more when developing educational messages: ISE messages have critical problematic assumptions and under-developed program logic.

Encourage research and youth engagement and discourage moral panics

I wholeheartedly agree with Jones et al about the importance of research-based education and would add that it’s also important to avoid “moral panics.” For about a decade, media, politicians and some parents were caught up in “predator panic,” which pretty much dissipated around 2008. But then we had bullying panic followed by privacy panic, sexting panic and now security panic. While all of these issues are important, none are of epidemic proportions and risks, in each case, can be managed. That’s why, which (speaking personally) I proudly refer to as an Internet safety organization, has published tips and advice as well as parents’ guides on many of these issues.

Respect and honesty matter

Finally, it’s important to be honest with kids and to respect their intelligence and judgement. As the teens who spoke at the first U.S. Safer Internet Day celebration in Washington made it abundantly clear, many teens are aware of the dangers on the Net and are able to put them into perspective and avoid serious problems. Respecting young people and helping them develop resilience, self-respect and respect for others is the ultimate form of Internet safety education because it encourages them to develop values that will protect them both on and offline for their entire lives. Teens themselves can play a crucial role through peer education and being “upstanders”rather than bystandars if, as Nancy Willard pointed out in an email, “they see someone else making dumb but dangerous mistakes. It’s also important to teach social-emotional learning skills starting at a very young age and for adults to role model kind, ethical and tolerant behavior.

Yes, there is good reason to question the efficacy of some Internet safety programs and, as you can see from the list of articles below, there is plenty of room for skepticism in the Internet safety field, but there remains a need for well thought out, research-based and up-to-date projects that are both accurate and respectful.

Larry Magid is co-director of, founder of and author of the original and 20th anniversary edition of Child Safety on the Information Highway.


The Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of “Juvenoia”

Predator Panic Making a Comeback

Privacy Panic Focuses on the Wrong Issues

With new data we can stop the teen sexting panic

Pseudoscience, technopanic and online youth

Beware of the Internet Safety Industrial Complex

Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth

Challenging ‘Internet safety’ as a subject to be taught

Evaluation of Internet Child Safety Materials Used by ICAC Task Forces in School and Community Settings

Youth Safety on a Living Internet: Report of the Online Safety and Technology Working Group