What does ‘safe’ really look like in a digital age?

By Anne Collier

In Part 1 of this series, I pointed you to a recent talk by John Seely Brown on the whitewater-kayaking kind of learning we need today and in Part 2, examples of that in Marianne Malmstrom’s New Jersey classroom. Both touch on “safety” in and for the learning process. Here, Part 3: zooming in on how they and other wise educators have clarified my view of child safety today.

What safety is not

Safety is not being kept under control, paralyzed by fear, or barred from social media. “The most unsafe thing you could do is not let your kids start to understand how to interact with the world,” author, educator, and scientist John Seely Brown said in his keynote speech at the Digital Media & Learning conference in San Francisco March 1. He added that we have developed “a perverse notion of [online] safety in this society.” That is what I’ve come to see too. The prevailing, very negative view of youth online safety is not research-based and not healthy – for kids, parents, communication between the generations, education, or our kids’ futures. It seems to be more about controlling kids and removing risk than helping them develop resilience and do the risk assessment that is essential to the independence for which adolescence is designed to prepare.

The prevailing negative view of youth online safety is also not good for learning because it calls for blocking social media at school, even though 77% of US middle and high school students are carrying around in their pockets cellphones likely to be equipped with the social medium called texting and even as the professional world they’re moving into increasingly requires competency in the media of today, not just those of the 20th century.

Besides, the whitewater kayaking in Seely Brown’s metaphor for learning is not without risk. By definition, neither kayaking nor learning can be mastered without some measure of risk-taking. In learning, child development, and Internet safety, “opportunities and risks go hand-in-hand,” wrote EU Kids Online’s researchers last fall in their final report on three years’ research in 23 countries (referring to the Net-safety piece). “Efforts to increase opportunities may also increase risks, while efforts to reduce risks may restrict children’s opportunities. A careful balancing act, which recognises children’s online experiences ‘in the round,’ is vital.” They concluded that “it is important to support children’s capacity to cope themselves, thereby building resilience for digital citizens” (see this for more on that).

From coping to confidence + competence

I don’t know if New Jersey educator Marianne Malmstrom ever saw that research from Europe, but supporting children’s own capacities seems to be one of her guiding principles as a teacher. However, for her and other teachers, what happens when they’re teaching in digital environments naturally goes beyond merely supporting students’ capacity for coping to fostering their capacity for figuring things out together, learning in the process, and growing not just their resilience but confidence and competence.

In other words, coping skills and resilience – key components of safety – develop in the process of learning, when learning is immersed in social media. Safety, in the sense of feeling respected and not judged, is key to collaborative problem-solving, an atmosphere all participants, including the teacher, co-create. Online safety is both a means to and a natural byproduct of learning online, in social media. This is why social media need to be in school.

In the past year, as she watched LEGO Universe shut down and Minecraft take off (see her post on this), Marianne told me that those developments turned into a metaphor for her about how heavy-handed safety can block learning.

“Originally I thought LEGO just lacked vision to hang in long enough for the game to gain popularity. My thinking on that has shifted,” she wrote in an email. “Now, I doubt that the game model would have ever been economically viable because it relied so heavily on adult control to ensure that nothing bad would happen. Those same controls also inhibited creativity and collaboration. Parents love that kind of safety net, but kids will always flock to where they have the freedom to play and socialize.”

Space to learn how best to be safe

When they do “play and socialize,” arguments can happen, just as they can offline. And, just as in “real life,” sometimes more can be learned when the people involved figure out how to resolve the argument themselves, rather than having teachers or parents intervene. Sometimes not – or sometimes things get really hurtful and require intervention. But learning social skills (which spells safety and success in social and academic contexts) happens where there’s space for learning them – emotional space, physical/digital space, as well as the space of giving things a little time to play out.

Here’s another example of how safety – in this case, reputation management – is learned through a social media-enabled project: In addition to designing and building spaces in Minecraft, Marianne’s students are required to record their work there by posting machinimas of their in-world projects (video of their avatars walking through and describing the buildings and spaces they’ve created, the articulation part of experiential learning). These are posted on YouTube. “Just for clarification,” Marianne wrote, to address any safety concerns, “we have a group channel on YouTube, and I hold the password.

“Anyway,” she continued. “most of the kids chose to write additional text when we posted their machinimas. It was a great opportunity to talk about the fact that the whole world could read what they wrote, so spelling and grammar mattered,” she wrote. “I used the example, ‘What if President Obama reads this? Would you be proud?’ They always asked, ‘Will he?’ My response was, ‘I don’t know, I doubt he has time to read it. But the important thing is that he COULD.’ That seems to help them better understand the implications when the content we post online is public.”

The properties of safety

So here are some proposed properties of safety, online and offline, for the 21st century and beyond (please tell me what I’m missing!):

  • Agency: A degree of free will, choice or empowerment for participants increases their safety by allowing them to be stakeholders in both the success of outcomes and the wellbeing of themselves, their fellow participants, and their community (the dictionary definition of “agency” is “the capacity to act or exert power”). This is the collaborative safety of a community and a social media environment. In her talk at the South by Southwest conference (SxSW 2012), game and school designer and educator Katie Salen cited Media Molecule founder/game designer Mark Healey about the need to give players powers to do something – the powers that create a kind of “force that flows through your veins and makes you feel like you can change the world around you.” This applies not just to players but participants in any community. Whether or not it turns them into leaders, it certainly makes all participants investors in how things go. How can we give students that kind of agency?
  • Literacy: Sometimes referred to as “competency” or “mastery,” literacy not only enables trust and confidence, it enhances safety the same way that being informed protects from misinformation, propaganda, fraud, manipulation, etc. In citizenship terms (online or offline), think in terms of being an informed citizen – how essential that is to citizenship in participatory culture. In digital social or interactive environments such as multiplayer games, three literacies support emotional or psychological safety as well as that of data, identity, reputation, intellectual property, software, and networks: digital literacy, media literacy, and social literacy. In this 2009 doc, “Online Safety 3.0,” ConnectSafely.org first published a taxonomy of online safety (see under “More than one type of online safety.”
  • Community: fosters social norms and a sense of belonging, which are both protective. A community’s participants organically (in the process of participating) develop the social norms that enable productive interaction and collaboration, providing a sense of safety to members and protecting the learning process and community cohesiveness. When there’s a lack of community, such as on YouTube or huge news sites that are too vast and diverse to be communities, it’s much more common to see the cruel or moronic comments that are too often associated with social media (even though, in these sites, too, there are people who see themselves as stakeholders, YouTube has told its online-safety advisers, and communities develop around vertical interests and channels). A sense of belonging mitigates hurtful behavior. My friend and adviser Patricia Agatston, a risk prevention specialist for Atlanta-area schools, wrote me, “Bullying prevention that helps all students feel like they belong and are accepted really fits into” the work of psychologist Alfred Adler, one of whose central principles is that “all humans strive to belong,” Patti wrote. “When we feel like we belong and are accepted, behavior is usually productive. When we doubt our belonging and acceptance we may act in less helpful ways,” she added. This is also why so many psychologists and bullying-prevention experts talk about the need for a whole-school-community approach.
  • Purpose: Sometimes called “learning objectives” – whether for a core-curriculum subject in school, an avidly shared interest in any space, the end result of a quest in a game, etc. – purposefulness fuels the work of a community by offering motivation or even inspiration. It fuels personal and collective growth and collaboration. This is the interest-driven social media use that the Digital Youth Project researchers discovered and wrote about in Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. It tends to increase safety by eclipsing random moronic or cruel behavior with collaborative actions toward a shared goal. Also, “the fastest way to improve someone’s everyday quality of life is to ‘bestow on a person a specific goal,'” University of California, Irvine, psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky says.
  • Ground rules: Sometimes called terms of use or artistic constraints, rules are to define not control. When the goal is learning or efficacy, not safety, safety happens as a byproduct of the process or experience. Rules create the conditions for achieving an objective the way artistic constraints maximize creativity (as the constraints define the process of a sculptor working with bronze or an oboist working with a double reed). “The whole role of rules is to create a space for improvisational play,” said Katie Salen at SxSW. “Classrooms are often filled with all kinds of rules,” which are neither motivating nor helpful when just about controlling students. However, note that the opposite – no rules – is also problematic,” Salen says: “Free-form spaces can also be really discouraging.” So, not rules against (bad actors, bad behavior and other negatives), but rules for (maximum creativity) find and strike the right balance.
  • Guidance: the caring, respectful kind – sometimes from a teacher, other times from community moderators, peer mentors, parents, or other parts of the “village.” This is the kind of support that guides or mentors, free from fear and overreaction. It fosters agency and facilitates play, learning, sharing, and collaboration. This kind of guide is often inspired and energized by learning along with the community s/he’s supporting. Teacher as participant/guide. This kind of guide also increases safety because, in choosing communication over control, the facilitator – as co-participant with a shared purpose – makes himself accessible to participants who want help not overreaction or increased control.
  • Infrastructure: The political and cultural supporting structure around the participatory digital or classroom environment – whether it’s called a corporate culture or school climate – is needed to model respect, freedom from judgment, engagement, collaboration, user feedback, and creativity in order to foster those values in the classroom, game, or virtual world (home or office too!). Digital environments can constitute infrastructure for learning too. Lose the “pre-packaged, pre-prescribed teaching,” as teacher Marianne Malmstrom puts it, as well as fearful locked-down control, in favor of a learning environment that actually “learns” – adjusts to and changes and grows – along with its learners. Salen said that a healthy gaming community has a lot to do with the game company that hosts it – she pointed to UK-based Media Molecule as an example: It’s a “very flat and respectful” company whose “gaming community is an extension of the company’s sense of community,” certainly a community that fosters communication and collaboration. This is what a safe school culture, as well as game or community, needs to be, going forward.

Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, who founded the National Institute for Play, says playfulness is protective (see this). And scholars Chip and Dan Heath write in their book Switch that “play doesn’t have a script, it broadens the kinds of things we consider doing. We become willing to fool around, to explore or invent new activities … building resource and skills.” So to foster really effective safety for a networked world, we need to rethink what safety means now, in the media environment of this second decade of the century and going forward; create more opportunities to play, socialize, and learn in today’s media; and lighten up – replace fear of new media with curiosity and at least a little bit of playfulness.

Readers, your comments are welcome! Please email me any additions or arguments via anne[at]netfamilynews.org. Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

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