Opinion: Challenging ‘Internet safety’ as a subject to be taught

“Way back” in 2008 – at least a decade after “online safety” was starting to be seen as a subject that needed to be taught to children – I suggested that it was becoming obsolete. Now what I’m seeing is that it never really was a single stand-alone subject that could become obsolete. We’ll look back on it as a risk-prevention placeholder that society created until our research-based understanding of the Internet and youth online practices replaced the myths and misinformation that circulated in the public discourse for far too long.

“Internet safety” needs to be, logically will be, dispersed – seen as the digital part of many well-established areas of risk prevention. Clear evidence is found in a milestone study from the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. The authors – Lisa Jones, Kimberly Mitchell and Wendy Walsh – write that “‘Internet safety’ topics are a very broad and shifting mix of concerns, which makes it difficult to create comprehensive program logic around the entire problem as a set.” The most widely used Internet safety education (ISE) programs in the US “combine messages about any or all of the following topics: cyberbullying, problematic content (e.g., videos of fights, inappropriate pictures), internet predators, sexting, spam, e-theft, and illegal downloading.”

The researchers write that established risk prevention education wouldn’t combine such a range of topics in a single program. “For example,” they write, “most people would find it strange to have a 1-hour presentation for youth that covered driving safety, safe sex, the dangers of drug use, and plagiarism. Most of us would think that these very different issues needed to be handled separately and using different educational tactics.” So let’s take this as a cue for “Internet safety.”

A year after I suggested in 2008 that Internet safety was obsolete, we ConnectSafely folk published “Online Safety 3.0,” in which we suggested that Internet safety is not the goal but the means to the goal: full, healthy participation in participatory media, culture and society. And now, from the research and the work of two national task forces on child online safety, we know that what protects children online is what protects them offline. These are: life skills, literacies and safeguards that are both internal – respect for self and others, resilience, empathy, and a strong inner guidance system (sometimes called a moral compass) – and external, such as good modeling, parenting and teaching by caring adults, peer mentoring, instruction in digital and media literacy, social-emotional learning, protective technology used thoughtfully, family and school rules, well-designed digital environments, and well-established laws against discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, and crime. It’s a lot, but it’s building on thousands of years of wisdom, research, social norms, and lawmaking. And it’s not really “Internet safety.” It’s time to move on!

Read the entire article by Anne Collier on NetFamilyNews.org at http://www.netfamilynews.org/challenging-internet-safety-as-a-subject-to-be-taught

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