Top takeaways from US’s top Net-safety conference

By Anne Collier

Each November Internet-safety organizations, tech and media companies, researchers, authors and policymakers gather in Washington, D.C., to get an update on young people’s social media practices, safety and privacy at “FOSI,” the nickname for the Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference. That update just happened, and here are my top takeaways.

Internet safety not really about the Internet

I’m delighted to be hearing more and more experts in many fields say that the context of what happens online is life. And not only that. Safety, which for so long has been said to be challenged by the Internet, is also found on the Internet. Mary Alford, psychologist and president of the American Psychological Association’s Society for Media Psychology and Technology, said on a panel that the advantage of virtual spaces is that it’s a safe space for some kids – especially those who are socially anxious – to practice their social skills. She stressed the need for looking at the positives as well as the risks in social media.

Michael Rich, MD, director of Boston’s Center on Media and Child Health, said that, often when we react negatively to what kids are doing in digital media, we’re neglecting the fact that “media environments are incredibly rich environments for kids to learn social skills, forming identity, and seeking connection with each other as independent people.”

But he adds that it’s helpful to look at children’s interaction with peers in digital media as “a transition to face-to-face interaction.” Sometimes they get stuck there and don’t move beyond screen-based interaction because, for marginalized kids, face-to-face is harder. “I like to think of face-to-face as an upgrade – riskier but more satisfying,” Rich said.

About parenting

Several mental health experts spoke of a need for parents to think about how available and present they are for their kids – not only because they’re busy but because, in their kids’ presence, they’re often distracted by whatever is on the other end of a text message, email, or social app on their smartphones. UK child and adolescent psychiatrist Richard Graham said kids’ loss of time and presence with parents is a recurring theme in his work. “How does a child have a sense of being kept in mind?” he asked. There’s no easy answer, he added, but it’s something we have to keep talking about.

Dr. Alford said that, when parents ask her how to have conversations about technology, she suggests, “Have them teach you about what they’re into right now. Not being fear-based is the place to start from.” An expert on helping children build resilience, she said that problem-solving and communication with parents (who are neither permissive nor dictatorial) develops confidence and resilience.

Urs Gasser, parent, author and executive director of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said, “We have to ask ourselves how tolerant we are of mistakes that happen [for example, when kids are experimenting with their social identity online]; do we have a common understanding that they need to do that?”

Approachable, calm, informed

Clinical psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair spoke of the patterns that turned up in her interviews with more than 1,000 children 3-18 over three years, including “the consistency with which children of all ages described their frustration with their parents – a kind of ‘relational fatigue’ with parents not paying attention.”

She said that, if we want our children to come to us when they find themselves in tough situations, we need to be three things (her breakdown of what “helpful” means): “approachable, calm and informed.” Here’s why these are so important, why it’s crucial not to overreact and escalate things:

“Given the world they are growing up in and the culture that they are destined to join, it is all the more important that our children be able to turn to us for advice, let us into their world to see what they are truly doing, and tell us the truth when they are in trouble,” Steiner-Adair said. “For them to be able to turn to us isn’t just a question of whether we allow it or expect it; they must first feel they can do so safely. Watch what you say. Don’t add to the drama,” she wrote in the book she was speaking about at FOSI, The Big Disconnect. [Check out her book to get her description of the opposite of approachable, calm and informed: “the scary parent,” “the crazy parent” and “the clueless parent,” types gleaned from interviewing more than 1,000 young people 8-17 over three years. She writes as a mother as well as a therapist – “a mother whose two children would be the first to tell you that I have been all of the above – scary, crazy and clueless – at memorable moments.”]

“We have to be able to make it safe for kids to talk about the stuff they’re really dealing with,” Steiner-Adair said. “We have to empower children to understand how they function as people in the world” – social skills, self-knowledge, ethics, self-regulation. And I had to tweet this comment of hers because of the respect it shows young people (and because it’s so true): “They don’t want their technology to trump their humanity.”

Young people as co-creators, part of the solution

This came up in comments from a number of people, including Urs Gasser of the Berkman Center. He said that, “when John Palfrey and I wrote our book [Born Digital, published in 2010], we approached it from an adult culture perspective. But when we started interacting with youth, what crystallized from those conversations is, ‘We can learn a lot from young people.’ So how can we be systematic as adults about learning from young people? It could be productive to think of it as a two-way street – a bi-directional learning experience.”

Certainly that’s what it was for parent, author and educator Rosalind Wiseman, researching her latest book, Masterminds and Wingmen. In fact, she said she was the one doing most of the learning. “When we can say ‘I don’t know’ to young people [or allow them to be our teachers], that’s transformational,” she said. After talking about her book, she was joined on the stage by three of her older advisers, Winston, a college freshman, Will, a college senior, and her director of communication and marketing, Charlie Kuhn, 25. She and Kuhn together worked with more than 200 middle and high school boys for more than two years, and with their help also published The Guide specifically for boys themselves (available for free until December 10).

A few bits of wisdom she’s picked up about boys from boys: that they often feel that, if they have to ask for help, there’s something wrong with them. “They want self-agency, and they deserve it, but they feel that when they ask for help, they’re giving up that agency. We don’t teach them that asking for help is a skill.” This is important to highlight. The ability to know when and how to ask for help is one of the social-emotional skills described by the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning, skills that are protective against social cruelty and increase self-knowledge, efficacy and success in many areas, including academic performance.]

“We need to teacher them how to be socially competent in a very complex world, how to speak truth to power, and how you confront abuse of power” – in other words, Wiseman said, “abuse of power is inevitable, so it’s our job to teach them social competency, to teach them that people’s dignity is not negotiable, for them or for anyone.”

Media increasingly personalized

Young people’s use of connected media and technologies is as personalized as it is social, now that mobile is becoming their platform of choice. The personalization goes for kids’ media experiences as well as their learning experiences. Those who look at how education needs to change talk about the value of student-centered learning, and not only to keep up with changes in media.

Brian O’Neill, head of the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology talked about EU Kids Online‘s newest research project, “Net Children Go Mobile,” tracking the on-phone experiences of young people in Denmark, Romania, UK and Italy. He said Europe is seeing “a decisive shift toward mobile” (as is North America), with kids “focusing more and more on activities unique to the mobile environments,” which means “an increasingly personal online experience.” Like other experts at the conference, he noted the lowering age of Net and media use and said a gender difference had shown up in the data: “Boys use and share videos much more than girls, and girls use Instagram (still photos).”

In other signs of movement, Dave Miles of FOSI in London, said that connected media has moved “from a teen issue to a preschooler issue – 39% of 3- and 4-year-olds are accessing the Internet every day. There’s a tangible sense of urgency to the discussion that wasn’t there two to three years ago.”  [Days later, Elizabeth Englander at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts said at a bullying prevention conference (IBPA in Nashville) that age 8 is too late to be teaching children social-emotional skills in and out of digital media;  kids get immersed in tech somewhere between 0 and 8, she said, and her guess is around kindergarten (in the US, anyway).] As for the older ones, Dave noted that, in many ways, youth are taking things upon themselves – they’re creating their own generational ecosystem” for navigating social media issues (which is great in many ways, but guidance is needed too). “Traditional education models are not geared to a digital technology world.”

British psychiatrist Richard Graham said that parents need to be engaging with children in and about social media as early as possible. “You can’t learn without experience, so avoiding engagement with social media is not a solution.” It’s far better to get on with learning about, with and in social media together.

It was a great conference – deeply encouraging to see more and more experts from more fields acknowledging young people’s key role as partners with us in learning and solution development online and offline.

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