Top EU policymaker on trusting our online kids

By Anne Collier

It’s amazing to hear a policymaker say this: “We cannot, and should not, put our children and youngsters in a digital glass cage, hoping they will never encounter any harmful or illegal content online. This will simply not work.” That was Neelie Kroes, European Commission vice president and the EU’s top legislator for digital issues, in a speech marking International Missing Children’s Day (May 25).

But then it gets really interesting: Acknowledging that “prevention, protection, prosecution must be strengthened, at the European and international level,” Commissioner Kroes said “we must also remember that building safety also means building trust: trust in our children and youngsters that they have the intelligence, capacity, and maturity to use these wonderful instruments in a positive and empowering way. It is our responsibility to guide them in their growth towards this objective.” That trust – and the encouragement of adults to exercise it – is what has been missing in much of the messaging around youth online safety over the past 15 years. The commissioner’s message is right in sync with efforts in various parts of the world to support youth agency, resilience, and citizenship both online and offline (see this).

There were similar statements in the US’s Online Safety & Technology Working Group (OSTWG) report, which said in its 2010 report to Congress, for example (p. 5): “There’s no one-size-fits-all, once-and-for-all solution to providing children with every aspect of online child safety. Rather, it takes a comprehensive ‘toolbox’ from which parents, educators, and other safety providers can choose tools appropriate to children’s developmental stages and life circumstances, as they grow. That toolbox needs to include safety education, ‘parental control’ technologies such as filtering and monitoring, safety features on connected devices and in online services, media ratings, family and school policy, and government policy. In essence, any solution to online safety must be holistic in nature and multi-dimensional in breadth.” And with an eye to fostering youth agency and resiliency, the OSTWG wrote: “Because the Internet is increasingly user-driven, with its ‘content’ changing in real-time, users are increasingly stakeholders in their own well-being online.” [See also University of Southern California Prof. Henry Jenkins’s comments about today’s young media users on p. 2 of the report.]

In its coverage of Kroes’s speech, Computerworld reported that her remarks about the “glass cage” “fly in the face of the Council of the European Union’s plans to create a ‘virtual Schengen border’ (the so-called Schengen area is the common passport area within the E.U.) with ISPs required to block ‘illicit content’ from outside the area.” That idea reportedly was a response to a discussion at “a Law Enforcement Work Party (LEWP) meeting in February … around blocking child porn sites” hosted outside the EU. “Later this year,” Computerworld adds, “the Commission will begin work on an initiative and the Commissioner said that parental control tools and age-rating systems could play a part in this.”

Related links

* “Youth Safety on a Living Internet: Report of the Online Safety & Technology Working Goup” (OSTWG)
* “OSTWG report: Why a ‘living Internet’?”
*Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth”
* “Cyberbullying: What I’ve learned so far” <>, addendum to “Notes from a conference on cyberbullying” last fall
* An excellent example of resilience: “Ally Pfeiffer’s ordeal … and ingenuity”
* “Understanding cyberbullying from the inside out”
* “Kids these days: Overparented?” and “The benefits of parenting with respect”

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