Europe’s amazing Internet safety work

By Anne Collier

Last week I had the great good fortune of participating in Safer Internet Forum 2009 in Luxembourg. What a fantastic experience, connecting with online-safety experts representing the 27 EU member countries plus Malaysia, Brazil, and New Zealand. I spoke on “Online Safety 3.0” and felt right at home (imagine how confirming it is to have colleagues from Bulgaria and Slovenia come up afterwards and say how much they could relate!). The Forum included teen panelists (aged 14-18) from 26 of the 27 countries.

This year’s focus was “Promoting Online Safety in Schools.” Here are highlights – things I heard from presenters over the four days of Forum and INSAFE meetings (INSAFE coordinates the European Commission’s network of Safer Internet Centres, one in each member country):

* POV is key: “What adults see as risks, young people see as opportunities – there’s no easy line between risk and opportunity”; “what we want young people to grow up to be is resilient; the only way for that to happen is for them to encounter risk,” suggesting that the need is for adults to support their development process; Internet safety is part of media literacy, part of the wider media picture – we need to enable them to make constructive, critical judgments in context.” – from Prof. Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics & Political Science and lead author of the huge, ongoing pan-European EUKidsOnline comparative research project

* “We must not be afraid to learn along with our kids.” – from Prof. Gianna Cappello at U. of Palermo, Italy

* Sound familiar?: “Both parents and students look to school for Internet safety advice, while schools struggle to take on this agenda,” Livingstone of the UK said. Teen participants echoed this throughout the day they were with us (schools’ struggle with the Net-safety-ed needs).

* A way to think about school: Elisabetta Pupuzza of Safer Internet Centre Italy said, “We need to think of schools not just as places but as educational agencies and contexts of relationships.”

* Holistic approach needed. A representative from Germany said, “We need a Media Blueprint for schools – one that takes an integrative approach, not merely teach cybersafety, but rather cybersafety as part of a complete range: technology skills, media skills, and life skills.” I spoke, too, about the need to teach and model life literacy, as teachers have always done (this is why Net-safety ed, if we can even call it that much longer, is naturally integrated into all subjects, pre-K-12). And Janice Richardson, head of Europe’s INSAFE network, told me they work on promoting “social literacy,” which almost says it all (you can see we’re all seeking the best terminology).

* Embedded & contextualized. UK representative Karl Hopwood also called for embedded Net-safety ed, and a colleague from the same country said students need context, need to be shown how social technologies affect them, and on the same panel a Slovenian representative agreed, saying that this means every teacher teaching appropriate use whenever appropriate throughout the day (perhaps like working with books and other traditional media?). Slovenia is teaching safe Net use, ethics, privacy, etc. through all elementary-school subjects and grades.

* Even more on this: “We can’t possibly include one more subject in school – the only way to teach this [new] media literacy is to integrate it throughout the curriculum,” said a representative from Luxembourg’s Ministry of Education. He said his country is now rolling out Net-safety ed in all primary schools, having just begun distribution of a manual to all primary school teachers: “It’s modular, adapted to the needs on the ground, in classrooms.” To make sure it’s adopted well, teachers will take a basic training class, and if something comes up in school, teachers can contact the trainer to help them deal with situations in a flexible way. “We’ve found we don’t need to teach the technologies, we need to teach how to work with them well,” he added.

* Simply digital citizenship. New Zealand defines “Internet safety” as digital citizenship. Period. Full stop. Netsafe for all New Zealanders and Hector’s World for 2-to-9-year-olds focus “developing caring and capable digital citizens – and transforming the culture of a school to implement these technologies in meaningful ways,” including in “the early childhood sector,” which in NZ includes homes and noncompulsory preschool.

* Kids want communication. “Youth are looking for ways to communicate more and better with their parents and teachers about their Internet use,” said mental health expert Pauline Ostner from Sweden.

* Adult fears push kids away. In Portugal, the Safer Internet Centre works directly with the Ministry of Education and tells schools that they must not invite law enforcement to speak to parents on Internet safety without the Safer Internet Centre there too; the representative said that it’s vital not to scare parents. Portugal now teaches Internet security and citizenship from the 5th-grade level.

* Not about technology: An educator from Italy said that, when regular teachers are resistant to technology, Net safety is left to school IT people and then becomes a technical issue, which is not good. This was echoed by panelists from the UK and Cypress (one solution that occurs to me is programs like the US’s GenYes, where students teach technology to teachers!).

* Clever videos. Saw clips of some great safety-awareness videos at Norway‘s about how “information sticks to you through both space [school and beyond] and time [later in life].” Don’t miss this one presenting a fairly uncomfortable student-parent-teacher conference (with English subtitles). [“Dubestermmer” means “You Decide” in Norwegian.] The presenter told us digital literacy is a basic skill required in all Norwegian schools.

* Peer mentoring: Finland has a 40-year-old “peer-support” program that operates in 90% of Finnish schools which has folded Net use into its student2student mentoring; its 750 adult instructors train the country’s 14,000 “peer students” each year; middle school students give Net-safety lessons in primary schools.

* Social-networking educators. “We’re introducing Ning for teachers’ social networking nationwide,” said a speaker from the Austrian Education Ministry. She said all of Austria‘s schools already use the open-source virtual-learning environment Moodle.

* Social Web’s mobile too: Mobile carriers Vodafone (UK-based) and Orange Spain have recently launched Web-based parents’ guides to the technologies youth use. I didn’t hear many other references during the four days to safety on the mobile social Web.

* Not one-size-fits-all. Over the four days, I didn’t hear much about different levels of online risk prevention and education, which we’re beginning to think about here in the US because of the research showing that not all youth are equally at risk. There was absolutely no evidence at the Forum of scary online-safety messaging, all of it seems firmly research-based. I did hear experts calling for more academic evaluation of Net-safety messaging and programs, a need that has been identified here in the US too.

There is no question in my mind that more dialogue and collaboration between the US and Europe would be good for all, especially youth.

Projects I’d love to see happen in the US:

1. For parents: As in the Netherlands, a “Cyberparent” program, training a parent or group of Cyberparents or Techparents in every school, possibly associated with PTOs and PTAs, working with the school and peer-mentoring fellow parents
2. For schools: A pilot project supported by the US Department of Education, with a half-dozen school districts around the country implementing a holistic Tech Skills, Media Skills, and Life Skills program pre-K-12 (an idea I got while on a panel with a representative from UK education-technology agency Becta)
3. For students: A nationwide school-based peer-mentoring program like Finland’s (mentioned above).

Related links

* The EC’s page on the Safer Internet Programme, including a map of participating countries and a list of countries showing whether they have helplines and hotlines (for reporting Net crimes to law enforcement) as well as Net-safety education centers. The hotlines work along the lines of the US’s and Canada’s Mexico just this year launched its own helpline (Europe has 20 helplines).
* INSAFE coordinates Europe’s network of Safer Internet Centres.
* Almost all of the Safer Internet Centres have Youth Panels of 14-to-18-year-olds. The panels’ sizes “vary between 6 to 28 participants,” according to the EC site. The Czech Republic’s has 6 members, Germany’s 9, Bulgaria’s 25, and Finland’s 28. Meeting frequency varies too, of course. Cyprus’s “meets once a month, and adults are not allowed to take part in their discussions.” In Germany and Finland, the youth panels meeting 2-3 weeks. “In the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Latvia, Slovenia, and Denmark the panels meet 3-5 times a year.”

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