Major obstacle to universal broadband & what can help

A significant speed bump on the road to nationwide broadband adoption is the fear-based approach of a great deal of Internet safety messaging of the past decade – here’s what should replace it.

By Anne Collier

Last week Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled the children-and-family part of the FCC’s universal broadband plan, designed to enable, among other things, 21st-century education. There’s just one problem: Schools have long turned to law enforcement for guidance in informing their communities about youth safety on the Net, broadband or otherwise, and the guidance they’re getting scares parents, school officials, and children about using the Internet.

Fear tactics don’t work

“Over the last decade, much of the Internet safety material – information still present on many state attorneys general web sites and in instruction material they provide – contains disinformation that creates the fear that young people are at high risk of online sexual predation,” writes author Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use (see the paper for examples), “when the actual research and arrest data indicates the opposite. There is a tendency among law enforcement officials to think that scare tactics are effective in reducing risk behavior. Research has never found this to be so.”

That last sentence is important, because Willard footnotes it and links to what the research is showing us about the fear-based approach, as well as how we can get it right and optimize kids’ broadband use going forward. The University of Virginia’s Social Norms Institute says, “Until recently, the predominant approach in the field of health promotion sought to motivate behavior change by highlighting risk. Sometimes called ‘the scare tactic approach’ or ‘health terrorism,’ this method essentially hopes to frighten individuals into positive change by insisting on the negative consequences of certain behaviors. As sociologist H. Wesley Perkins has pointed out, however, this kind of traditional strategy ‘has not changed behavior one percent’.”

In fact, the scare-tactic approach is doubly problematic: Besides the fact that it fails to change behavior, it also hinders the efforts of visionary educators (who I’ve talked with, met at conferences, and followed on Twitter) to capitalize on and guide students’ use of new media by integrating them into all appropriate subjects, pre-K-12 (for example, a middle school teacher in New Jersey told me, “My students are as afraid of the Internet as their parents are now,” and another in New York that a parent of one of her students told members of the school board that she didn’t want her child using the Internet with her peers because their parents could get hold of her email address, and “one of those parents could be a predator”). [Willard points to a report released by the FCC in February, “Broadband Adoption and Use in America,” showing that 24% of US broadband users and nearly half (46%) of non-broadband users “strongly agree that the Internet is too dangerous for children.”]

What does work

What will help youth, 21st-century education, and universal broadband move forward? What has “revolutionized the field of health promotion,” according to the UVA Institute: the social-norms approach. “Essentially, the social-norms approach uses a variety of methods to correct negative misperceptions (usually overestimations of use [of alcohol or drugs, it says, so think: overestimations of risky or cruel online behavior like “everybody hates her,” “bullying is normal,” “everyone shares passwords with friends,” etc.]), and to identify, model, and promote the healthy, protective behaviors that are the actual norm in a given population. When properly conducted, it is an evidence-based, data-driven process, and a very cost-effective method of achieving large-scale positive results” (see this on social-norming and Net safety and this on the whole-school approach to bullying). The Institute adds that the social-norms approach has had proven results in “tobacco prevention, seat-belt use, sexual assault prevention, and academic performance.”

With the help of the FCC, the FTC, the DOE, and other government departments leading this positive, research-based approach to youth online safety (Chairman Genochowski said last week this will be an interagency effort), as a society, we can lower public resistance to broadband adoption and begin to free up American education to do for children’s use of new media what it has long done for their use of books: guide and enrich them (examples here and here). But that’s not all. School will become more relevant to our highly new-media-engaged kids, and students will become more engaged.

Related links

* Willard’s books include Cyber-safe Kids, Cyber-savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly and Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress
* Here’s why a positive approach to youth online safety is the way to go (“Online Safety 3.0: Empowering & Protecting Youth” at
* A mother lode of research findings on how youth use new media can be found in Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (MIT Press, 2009). See also “Major study on youth & media: Let’s take a closer look” in NFN, 1/21/10.
* More on the over-used fear-based approach of the past decade here in NetFamilyNews: “Key crossroads for Net safety: ISTTF report released”, “Why technopanics are bad”, “‘Predator panic'” in May 2006, when I first saw the phrase used, and a collection of my posts about research and news reports on predators
* “School filtering & students’ workarounds” in NFN


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