Online safety: The means, not the end

We really need to rethink online safety. When you talk with teens in your family or classroom, do you see what I'm seeing: that, because of the predator panic US society has been experiencing and widespread school policy to block social media, they have practically tuned out the term "online safety"? Because it has for so long been equated with "deleting predators" and it can't really help them deal with the complexities of their online/offline social lives, it's in danger of becoming irrelevant to them.

That puts "online safety" in danger of becoming a barrier rather than a support to young people's constructive, enriching use of social media and technologies. If that happens, it also becomes a barrier to their full participation in participatory culture and democracy.

Certainly the social Web itself isn't participatory democracy 2.0; however – witness the prominent role of social network sites in the US's latest presidential election – it has clearly become an important tool of participatory democracy and, as such, needs to be part of citizenship and media literacy education in school (to remain relevant to social media's most fluent practitioners – teens – schools cannot afford to discourage or block social media's use). Online and offline citizenship and social media literacy are themselves the lionshare of online-safety education for youth who are not at risk in offline life (more on this below and in "Social media literacy: The new Internet safety").

To help keep school relevant to students, make online safety meaningful to them, make their use of social media more constructive, and close what author and media professor Henry Jenkins calls the participation gap, we need to: 1) put online safety into the context of full, healthy participation and 2) redefine it as freedom from a set of risks that restrict youth from free expression and civic engagement through social technologies and media.

The three forms of safety that enable full participation are:

* Physical safety – the one we have focused on the most, freedom from physical harm by predators and bullies
* Psychological safety – freedom from cruelty, flaming, and other forms of harassment and cyberbullying involving ex-friends, mean kids, bullies, colleagues, etc. (picture a wise drama teacher whose rule it is that all students check all personal judgment/criticism at the door before they engage worry-free in otherwise compromising, goofy warm-up exercises).
* Reputational and legal safety – these can overlap with the psychological kind, where, for example, online defamation can harm someone's reputation; they provide for freedom from restriction or repercussion as a result of online communication or production by one's self or others (repercussions ranging from school discipline to loss of employment to criminal charges for sexting).

All of those freedoms – including from physical harm – are fostered when youth receive training in citizenship, ethics, empathy, new media literacy (employing the critical-thinking filter to what one "says," uploads, or produces as much as reads, downloads or consumes). Such training couldn't remove all online risk any more than it could remove all danger from offline life – particularly for at-risk youth. It can't speed up teenage brain development, which necessarily involves risk taking and assessment and continues until their early-to-mid-20s. But it would go way beyond legislation, stranger-danger messages, parental-control technology, or any other-imposed safety measure, because it develops the internal "filter" that is always with them. These freedoms are not the goal; they are means to achieving it. We need to shift the public discussion from the more negative safety from to the much more positive safety for or toward active civic engagement online and offline as an essential goal of education in a free society (see the impressive array of skills involved in new media literacy at

Educator and author Will Richardson says it better. Referring to social Web technologies, he recently wrote in ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine that, "for a host of reasons, we're failing to empower kids to use one of the most important technologies for learning that we've ever had. One of the biggest challenges educators face right now is figuring out how to help students create, navigate, and grow the powerful, individualized networks of learning that bloom on the Web and helping them do this effectively, ethically, and safely." Safe, ethical, full participation is also one of the biggest opportunities, as well as challenges, we all – students, educators, parents, policymakers, society itself – face right now.

Readers, please jump in – agree, disagree, edit, augment, or comment, in our forum, in my blog, or via email to anne(at)!

Related links

* As the goal, safety sells youth short. How? Consider the playground metaphor, described by Barry Joseph of Global Kids, a youth-education nonprofit organization in New York asked if safety is all we want from playgrounds for our kids. "What makes a playground safe? Recreational equipment that isn't broken, for example. Barriers to keep out drug dealers or predatory adults. Authority figures to police the space. How would this playground change if it were redesigned to not just keep youth safe but also support their development?"
* Prof. Henry Jenkins's list of factors that block "full achievement" of a participatory society, a "partial agenda for media reform from the perspective of participatory culture"
* The skills of new media literacy – learn more at the "Learning in a Participatory Culture" conference at MIT on May 2
* "Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project," fall 2008
* "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies," the final report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, January 2009
* "Social media literacy: The new Internet safety" at NFN

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