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Online Safety As We Know It: Becoming Obsolete?

The headline may seem a bit inflammatory, but it's a sincere suggestion coming from 10+ years of observing and participating in the online-safety field.
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The headline may seem a bit inflammatory, but it's a sincere suggestion coming from 10+ years of observing and participating in the online-safety field. What we all know about online youth now from a substantial and growing body of research suggests it's time to reassess. We know, for example, that...

  • Young people make little distinction between online and offline and move constantly and fluidly between the two, with the focus more on the activity (socializing, schoolwork, listening to music, or all the above) than on the device or "place" where it's occurring.
  • The Internet has increasingly become a mirror of "real life" - what kids do online is not about technology, it's about life, child and adolescent development, functioning in community, at-risk behavior, critical thinking, and media literacy.
  • It's the young people at risk offline who are most at risk online, so expertise in adolescent at-risk behavior is necessary to the discussion.

Consider the first of nine myths about "digital natives" (online youth, basically, people who've never known life without the Internet) put forth by Profs. John Palfrey and Urs Gasser at a conference at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center: "Myth #1 - The online world presents a wholly new and completely different set of issues for youth we must address" (the ninth complements it: the myth that digital natives are a homogeneous group). [Even homogeneously speaking, research shows that young people themselves are getting smarter all by themselves about privacy and reputation management online (Pew/Internet data summarized in "Teens rule the Web").]

So, we might ask, should online safety be a separate field or discipline with unique safety expertise concerning some monolithic group called online youth? Certainly the Internet can augment and perpetuate problems in young people's lives in unprecedented ways, but research is showing that the substance of the problems is rooted in those real lives, not in a specific technology. It has to do with adolescent development and behavior much more than with technology. In fact, a great many types of expertise are becoming essential to the discussion - from neurologists on the teenage brain to psychologists on adolescent risk assessment to school counselors and administrators right in the trenches of gossip-cum-bullying blogs and cellphone photo-sharing. Sometimes we need to consult experts in constitutional law and computer forensics too (a dean of students once wisely had a computer forensics cop show students in a school-wide assembly how they're not as anonymous online as they think).

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Where people with experience in online safety can help (in this transition time before the "digital natives" are parents and professionals themselves) is by...

  • Educating the public that online safety and well-being is not separate from "real life" and needs the same accountability.
  • Educating the public about how the Internet affects real-world actions or comments: how it can perpetuate them, reproduce or compound them, make them searchable, and bring unknown, unexpected audiences to them (see social media researcher danah boyd on this in an interview at
  • Serving as information clearinghouses and connectors to the right kind of expertise for predation, bullying, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc. The help we could point teens and parents to might be at customer service departments of Web sites, virtual worlds, or mobile phone companies; school administrators; certain specialists in law enforcement; legal advisers; social workers; psychologists; and so on.

My model for the clearinghouse approach is Netsafe in New Zealand. Providing online-safety education for all New Zealanders (youth, parents, schools, community organizations, companies, policymakers), Netsafe is an independent nonprofit organization with an active board membership representing New Zealand's Education Ministry, educators themselves, judges, corporations, parents, students, social workers, police, and New Zealand's Police Youth Education Service, Internal Affairs Dept., and Customs Service. Yes, Netsafe's an online-safety education organization working hard at the preventive end like many organizations in the US, but it also works at the remedial end, getting problems that come up to the right kind of help. An example of its clearinghouse role is in its direct relationship with New Zealand's two main mobile carriers' customer service departments, helping them get abuse calls about phone-based bullying and other problems to the right experts - sometimes parents, social workers, counselors, and school officials, not just law enforcement.

Probably no single organization in the US, with its population of 300 million (vs. New Zealand's 4 million), can handle all that Netsafe does nationwide in its country. The US's National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) - with its CyberTipline working at the remedial end and NetSmartz working up front at education and prevention (intelligently focusing more and more on safety in general, not just the online kind) - is certainly going for this more holistic approach. But our society is still too focused on the crime and law enforcement part of the "problem," and our online-safety field is still dominated by lawyers and law enforcement. Certainly society needs to keep addressing crime online, but the online-safety field - though maybe not quite obsolete - needs to reflect the breadth of young people's use of the Internet and all related devices and technologies, positive as well as a negative.



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