The ISTTF: Chicken or egg?

What should come first from a Net safety task force: better understanding through review of the research or a predetermined solution? Diagnosis or prescription?

by Anne Collier

"ISTTF" stands for Internet Safety Technical Task Force, the result of an agreement last January between 49 state attorneys general (minus Texas) and MySpace. The emphasis is on the word "technical," because the attorneys general basically charged the task force, of which I'm a member, with reviewing technical solutions to online youth risk – "age verification" technology being their stated predetermined solution of choice. Why? Because they're law enforcement people. They deal with crime – not all these other subjects that have come up in online-youth and social-media research – so they probably feel that this is all about crime and technology, so some technology that separates adult criminals from online kids, or that somehow identifies every American on the Web, is what will make the Internet safe for youth.

The problem is, we now know – via a growing body of research – that young people's use of technology for socializing is not limited to MySpace, to social networking in general, or even to the Web. Youth don't even focus on what technology or device (phone, chat, blogs, IM, Skype, computer, Xbox Live, Club Penguin, World of Warcraft, etc.) they use when they're socializing. They just communicate, produce, and socialize. So the "problem" is not technology. We're dealing with behavior, learning, adolescent development, social norm development, and identity formation, here. What technology is going to give adults (those who want it) control over that, or somehow sequester American youth into American sites that are compelled to verify ages, or separate adults and children across the entire universe of increasingly mobile, device-agnostic communications, media-sharing, and social activity?

Besides, we also know now that only a tiny percentage – well under 1% – of US youth are at risk of being victimized by the kinds of crimes the attorneys general put the Task Force together for, and this minority is, unfortunately, already at risk in "real life." Technology probably doesn't have much of a chance at curing the age-old struggles of troubled youth – certainly not ID verification technology.

The other thing we know, though we adults don't think about it a whole lot, is that the "problem" is changing – fast (it actually won't be that long before our teenagers are parents!). Because nobody's brains are fully developed till their early 20s, teens need our input, but so do we need theirs. For the most part, youth understand what's happening with tech and the social Web, they're the drivers of it, they're changing (growing up), and technology is changing faster than we can keep up with it, so we don't have anything close to a static "problem" to get a fix on, much less to fix. 

Which leads me to the chicken/egg question. The first day we heard at least a dozen presentations by purveyors of various technologies, many of them focused on verifying either ages (very hard with US minors, who under federal privacy law have very little verifiable personal information in public records) or identities. By the end of the day I couldn't shake off the unnerving picture of a roomful of baby boomers (digital non-natives, including me) – many of whom barely understand the "problem," much less the full picture of young social Web participants, and some of whom stand to gain a great deal from selling the Task Force on a particular technology for nationwide adoption – trying to assert control over the unruly social Web. The understanding is growing, not least because the Task Force has a research advisory board as well as a technical one, and the former is right now completing a review of all research on youth online safety to date – the first of its kind. This is brilliant! So what's wrong with this picture? Seems to me the research comes first, then – as we understand the problem – we begin to look at what the solutions should be.

The second day we heard from a Rochester Institute of Technology sociology professor with a background in law enforcement. It's an important study (I'll blog about it more next week) because it looks at Internet use by more than 40,000 Rochester-area students all the way from kindergarten up through 12th grade, and it offered the Task Force insights into the peer-on-peer, noncriminal but negative and sometimes unethical and illegal side of the online-safety question. But youth were referred to in an extremely negative adversarial way, first- and second-graders referred to as "perpetrators" and "offenders." For example, the "four types" of middle-school "online offenders," he said, are "generalists, pirates, academic cheaters, and deceiving bullies." As useful as the data is, I don't feel this is productive language to use when trying to change behavior or inspire children about digital citizenship (see my description of an amazing such project at Bel Aire Elementary School in Tiburon, Calif., here).

So there you have one person's (rambling) perspective. There are others available now – that of Adam Thierer of the Washington, DC-based Progress & Freedom Foundation and a more radical one from CNET blogger and Berkman fellow Chris Soghoian. [The Task Force is hosted and chaired by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.]

Your views are always welcome – in our forum here or via anne[at] With your permission, I love to publish your views for the benefit of all readers.

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