Important new resource for online risk prevention

A report out of the UK takes our collective (global) understanding of online risk prevention to the next level.

By Anne Collier

A third major mile marker in our collective (global) understanding of how to mitigate youth online risk just fell into place: “Munch, Poke, Ping: Vulnerable Young People, Social Media and E-Safety,” a brand-new report to Britain’s Training & Development Agency (TDA), the agency responsible for the training and development of that country’s school workforce, including counselors and social workers who work with at-risk youth. [The first three words in the title refer to favorite cellphone and social-site features of UK teens.]

Here are the three milestones relevant to the work of school administrators, counselors and social workers:

* Milestone 1 – the finding of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force that not all young people are equally at risk online, and it’s usually the kids most at risk offline who are most vulnerable online too.
* Milestone 2 – less widely known but equally essential: the Levels of Prevention, a model that build on the ISTTF’s finding about varying levels of risk. Presented by risk prevention expert and author Patricia Agatston to the Online Safety & Technology Working Group (OSTWG) in 2009, the levels are the Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary framework of the US public health field. “Primary” is basic prevention education for all youth (e.g., digital citizenship, literacy, and safety at home and school, pre-K-12); “Secondary” is more targeted and situational prevention ed (such as empathy or anti-bullying programs at school or using incidents of bullying or conflict as “teachable moments”); and “Tertiary” is targeted prevention and intervention for the much smaller population of youth with established patterns of risky behavior in their lives. As we ConnectSafely folk have been saying since we first worked with Dr. Agatston and other risk-prevention experts on adapting the levels to Net safety, Tertiary-level education can’t just be aimed at youth; it has to include training in social-media use for the adults working with at-risk youth – so they can work with their clients in the media and with the technologies that are so much a part of their lives.
* Milestone 3 – The appropriately youth-centric “Munch, Poke, Ping” report, by UK youth advocate and e-safety consultant Stephen Carrick-Davies, for the first time zooms in on and provides detailed recommendations for that “Tertiary” level of risk prevention and intervention – the group of young people who are variously called “at-risk youth” (US), “vulnerable youth,” or the “disaffected and disruptive pupils” for whom a 1993 British law created Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) that provide support when those students find themselves excluded from school (see p. 21 of the full report for an explanation of its choice of “vulnerable youth”).

Why is “Munch, Poke, Ping” such a milestone? Its methodology, recommendations, and the clear course it charts for risk-prevention specialists and social workers. The author conducted a lit review, an online survey, face-to-face interviews with the social workers, workshops, site visits, and “perhaps most importantly, intensive focus group sessions” with a small group of 15-to-17-year-olds served by one PRU in South London. The conversations turned up four themes that provided structure for the report and recommendations:

* Identity – “image or reputation, status, compulsion, peer-pressure, membership”
* Relationships – “fun romance, flirting, sexuality, sharing, family, teachers”
* Conflict – “suspicion, hidden rules, assumed norms and values, emotions”
* Coping – “resilience, reporting, teachers, parents, peer group”

The South London teens also created an e-safety video together, starring the teens themselves (the first video on this page), and I love the intention behind the project: “the modeling of a very positive use of technology and the active involvement of students as co-researchers and peer-teachers…. It is crucial to balance the risks and showcase the very real positive ways technology can be used to support vulnerable young people.”

Train the adults (in social media)!

Among other outstanding recommendations, the report calls for “high-quality, hands-on training in new technologies on an ongoing basis … so staff can fully understand the language, tools and applications” their clients use; surveys that ask youth themselves to “identify the most serious online risk to them” rather than telling them “which risks we adults perceive young people to encounter”; and youth involvement in developing acceptable-use policies.

And the following point in “Munch, Poke, Ping” sums what so many of us adults – from parents to educators to risk-prevention experts to social workers – need to understand for effective policymaking (from household to school to national) around youth online safety, the message we co-chairs sent to Congress in the OSTWG report executive summary last year. Here’s how Carrick-Davies puts it:

“Social media and mobile technology are now ubiquitous in society and an indispensible part of young people’s lives, so teaching about e-safety cannot simply be ‘bolted on’ as a curriculum extra. Instead, e-safety needs to be embedded into the wider teaching of emotional, social and digital literacies in all schools from an early age,” especially in work with society’s – any digital-age society’s – most vulnerable youth. I highly recommend this report to US risk-prevention specialists too.

Related links

* A commentary in The Guardian from the study’s author, Stephen Carrick-Davies, highlights these findings: that, contrary to popular opinion, youth care a great deal about their privacy and reputations online and offline; that, for the young people in the study, “the mobile phone has become the single-most important activity that gives identity, connection and a sense of community” (which means banning would not be an effective solution); that young people with “low self-esteem,” “low levels of literacy,” “early experiences with alcohol or drugs,” “more unsupervised time,” and a lack of “influence from supportive adults” are “at further risk online from being groomed by older peers and becoming addicted to a virtual world that seems more sane than the one they inhabit offline”; but that “those with the skill and confidence to narrate their lives online, manage their reputation, mitigate the risks and build up resilience, may well be able to survive and thrive.”
* A child-centric one is the only logical approach to risk prevention and intervention in a user-driven media environment – see “Understanding cyberbullying from the inside out”
* “OSTWG report: Why a ‘living Internet’?”
* “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering & Protecting Youth”

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