Net-safety leadership: UK Council unveils national strategy

Where dealing with children’s online safety is concerned, the UK continues to impress. Clearly it was no easy task, but on the recommendation of psychologist, professor, TV personality, parent, and author of the Prime Minister Brown-appointed Byron Review Tanya Byron, the September 2008-launched UK Council for Child Internet Safety – made up of a staggering 140+ companies, organizations, and individuals – this week released its first safety strategy: “Click Clever Click Safe.” A lot of the executive summary is music to my ears. Here’s what I read:

* Safety in context – safety’s role not only in protecting but also enabling children’s full, healthy participation in participatory society (I would only add: as active good citizens, not just digital ones, and stakeholders in their own well-being and that of their communities online and offline)
* Safety takes a village (maybe even more than raising a child does), requiring the expertise of all stakeholders: chief among them youth, but also parents, educators, the Internet industry, mental-health and risk-prevention practitioners, law enforcement, policymakers, and clergy – many of these skill sets are represented on the Council. And hear, hear!: “By working together, learning from one another’s experience and reinforcing one another’s messages we can achieve more than the toughest legislation, the biggest company or the most caring charity ever could alone.”
* The child-protection village is global. Again, hear, hear!: The Strategy says, “We need to make links between international, national and local efforts to help children…. Work done here must be done with and alongside international efforts to improve child online safety.”
* Practical intelligence: How little have I seen this level of realism in our news media: “As in the offline world, we can never keep children completely safe, and this is not about imposing unnecessary restrictions that undermine the Internet’s benefits,” the Strategy states. I would only add this bit of practical intelligence: that all forms of safety need to be addressed and, hopefully seen eventually to be children’s rights and responsibilities online. The forms of safety are physical, psychological, legal, reputational, and personal (identity and property).

Clearly, we have kindred spirits across the Atlantic (see some similar thinking in ConnectSafely’s “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering & Protecting Youth“). But what we all need to consider adding, now, to our work on both sides of the Pond, I feel, is a layered approach to online safety education, mapped to the need and the audience and based on the research showing that not all youth are equally at risk, and the young people most at risk online are those most at risk offline….

1 thing I’d add: Levels of Net-safety ed needed

A logical way to organize Net-safety education is to map it to the levels of prevention which the risk-prevention community has adapted from disease prevention, I realized in talking with risk-prevention practitioner Patti Agatston of the Atlanta area’s Cobb County School District. In a conversation started by Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use, it dawned on me that this tiered approach is exactly what online-safety ed needs as well – and I hope colleagues agree. The levels are simply:

* Primary: Not “primary” as in school but as in universal – tangible prevention in the form of new-media literacy and citizenship (as mentioned above), taught pre-K-12, throughout the curriculum (based on research published in Archives of Pediatrics that youth who engage in aggressive behavior are more than twice as likely to be victimized, indicating that critical thinking and civility are preventive if not protective).
* Secondary: More focused prevention education aimed at mitigating cyberbullying, sexting, cutting, anorexia, substance abuse, etc. represented or reinforced online as well as offline. This level of prevention can also be applied to specific events or incidents that need to be turned into “teachable moments” at school, either with a whole-school approach or in working with focused groups of students – e.g., a unit in health class about the psychological and legal implications of sexting.
* Tertiary: Prevention AND intervention for the minority of youth who already have established patterns of risky behaviors disrupting their lives. At this level, the risk-prevention practitioners themselves need the training – in social media use – so they can fold this knowledge into their work with young people.

Key take-aways: School, industry, child services

As for the headlines in the UK, the most common was that, starting in September 2011, it’ll be compulsory in British schools for kids aged 5+ to be taught Internet safety (see The Telegraph’s). I hope the universal education piece will evolve quickly to new media literacy and citizenship (online and offline), which by definition include the critical thinking about potentially harmful incoming messages from mean peers, adult strangers, and all sorts of manipulators as well as harmful outgoing messages from young stakeholders in constructive community at school and home and online.

The strategy calls on the Internet industry to move beyond the self-regulation it had apparently hoped for. According to the Times Online, “child safety campaigners have been locked in months of tortuous negotiations with internet industry leaders over what companies could do to make children safer. The industry has agreed [to] a range of new requirements, such as offering parents more rigorous privacy settings which, for example, include a secret password,” including “reluctant agreement … to have progress on safety assessed independently by one of the big consultancy firms.”

And for everybody who works with children, the 140-member Council pledges that: “In England and Wales by March 2010 we will include online safety in the ‘Common Core’ of skills and knowledge for people who work with children and work to make sure this is reflected in qualifications for people who work with children.” The next step is to teach the same experts (mentioned in the Tertiary level above) how to function easily in the media environments youth love (texting, virtual worlds, online games, social network sites, etc.). A clinical psychologist I met in Mexico City couldn’t get an extremely shy teenage boy to talk with him until he went to see the boy in World of Warcraft, where the latter felt comfortable to talk with him; then the boy was able to talk with the psychologist in his office. I heard a similar story from a Texas mother, who was able to keep in touch with her college-student son once they played World or Warcraft together on Sunday afternoons (he at his distant college and she at home).

Some key data in the report

The Strategy reported that…

* 99% of British 8-to-17-year-olds have access to the Net.
* 76% of young people say the Internet means their friends are there whenever they need them.
* 18% of children have come across harmful or inappropriate content online.
* 50% of children encountering harmful or inappropriate content say they did something about it.
* 82% of children say their school has taught them how to use the internet safely.
* 67% of parents have rules for their children’s internet usage.
* 33% say their parents don’t really know what they do on the internet.
* 79% of UK parents say they talk to their children about online safety, but only 52% of children agree.

Related links

* The indispensable multi-year, pan-European online-youth research at “EU Kids Online,” based at the London School of Economics and funded by the EC’s Safer Internet Programme
* “From users to citizens: How to make digital citizenship relevant”
* “Social norming & digital citizenship”
* Proposed definition of digital literacy and citizenship”
* “Europe’s amazing Internet-safety work”
* “Net safety: How social networks can be protective”
* “Social media literacy: The new Internet safety”

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