How the Net industry can help us get to Online Safety 3.0

It goes beyond goodwill advertising, abuse reporting, and Terms of Use enforcement to creating online environments that promote user civility, community self-regulation, and cultures of respect.

By Anne Collier

This is great, an early sign of the Internet industry’s piece of OS 3.0: what the popular teen social site is doing for, a nonprofit support and suicide-prevention site for teens on the social Web (it now has a US base too, but since its start in Australia, that country “has seen a 56% reduction in youth suicide rates,” the site says). Here’s how Reach Out describes what MyYearbook is doing in the US: “Beginning on Christmas Day, five youth council members will be helping us to manage our new fan page on, one of the largest youth online social networks. myYearbook has generously offered to donate regular homepage takeovers, which will drive thousands of users to ‘fan’ us on their site. We have been working with our council members to train them to be ambassadors on our behalf as well as monitoring our page for any posts from myYearbook members who may be in crisis.” When I called Anastasia Goodstein at Reach Out in San Francisco about this recently, she told me that myYearbook plans to devote its home page to Reach Out once every couple of months. That’s remarkable.

What Anastasia describes here is right in sync with where we ConnectSafely folk feel online safety needs to go: “This outreach is part of a larger strategy to be where young people are, i.e. ‘the digital streets’ vs. forcing them to find us. We feel it is important to have young people on the front lines (our council members), letting other young people know about our resource.”

Creating the conditions for friends and peers to be able to help and support each other in online communities is part of “the guild effect” I started writing about a little over a year ago. Web sites, virtual worlds, and multiplayer games can also make professional support available to community member and, through site features and culture, help shape in-world behavior to protective effect – in ways that go beyond advertising helplines and clarifying Terms of Use and abuse reporting. Ads and well-enforced Terms of Use are essential, of course, but real online safety (that reaches youth where they are in social media and begins to approximate offline safety as the online risk spectrum increasingly matches the offline one) requires more, for example online worlds, games, and sites having:

* Moderators who are trained to support and model civility among members, not just at the “back end” as they monitor site activity but – especially in virtual worlds for kids – also in-world and in games.
* Community storylines, product features, incentives, and other environmental conditions (such as World of Warcraft’s guilds) that support a respectful or at least cooperative and well-functioning, non-hurtful on-site culture.
* Support staff (such as Facebook’s anti-hate and harassment team) or having on call 24/7 people trained in prevention and intervention of suicide, bullying, substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and other risks.

Children’s advocates, risk-prevention specialists, and the industry need to put heads together to figure out the most workable approaches for both companies and users. And risk-prevention specialists, social workers, and mental healthcare practitioners need to be available in or at least to online communities, learning how to help right in the media where struggling or at-risk youth are.

The Reach Out/myYearbook collaboration represents one important approach and first step in creating a key piece of the puzzle: by raising awareness, encouraging users to be what the suicide prevention community calls “gatekeepers” (because friends are usually the first to notice when a peer is struggling or in crisis, they can help steer that friend toward the right kind of help, e.g. what Reach Out can provide). But on a Web with tens of millions of young users in the US alone, a single nonprofit organization can’t provide all the support needed. Helplines and other support organizations need to collaborate in figuring out how they can together best supply the social Web industry with prevention and intervention support. And both of those stakeholders – risk specialists and the industry – need input from other key safety stakeholders: users, parents, educators, and children’s advocates. Why all this pesky, complicated collaboration? Two reasons: Because the social Web is not just a business (risk on it increasingly approximates the offline risk spectrum) and the research is telling us that it mirrors and is embedded in young people’s offline lives.

Online safety can’t be attained just by increasing response times, deleting accounts or fake profiles, or enforcing Terms of Use. Mere policing won’t get us there in a user-driven media environment that reflects offline behavior, production, communication, and sociality. User empowerment is not just a nicety; it’s an indispensable component of child protection on the social Web, a piece we won’t have without the industry’s help.:

Related links:

* See this on why user efficacy, or agency, is important – and why we need to support our children’s sense of efficacy online by seeing their use of the Internet as consequential and helping them see it as such.
* “ Substantive help for teens”
* “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth”

Leave a comment