In its coverage of Facebook’s announced shift in the direction of privacy and private communication, the New York Times reported that the platform’s move will “redefine how people use social media.” Then it contradicted itself, saying that “consumers were already moving en masse toward more private methods of digital communications,” citing Snapchat, Nextdoor, Signal and Telegram. The second part – that people are moving away from public and performative – is more likely. Teens flocking to Snapchat five years ago out of sheer self-presentation fatigue was an early sign. Sure, plenty of us, including teens, still like to put our selves “out there.” Sure, transparency and TMI are growing overall. But not everybody wants to live life in a fishbowl – not all the time – and Facebook’s announcement is an indicator that the pendulum has started to swing back.
- Embrace a new(-old) paradigm. Since its earliest days, Internet safety has been positioned in the law enforcement and, to a degree, public health paradigms. Quite understandably, since research came later, Net safety education has for too long been reactive, often scary, and about control (as in controlling the spread of a disease) and prohibition (as with drug addiction — now “tech addiction”). In the earliest days — and we’re now seeing this again with “digital wellbeing” — self-proclaimed experts and advocates literally made stuff up. At least until 2013 in the US, when researchers analyzed our country’s most widely used Internet safety curricula and programs, none of it was evidence-based or employed even the most basic criteria of risk prevention education. We now have a solid and growing body of youth online risk and social media research, so it’s time we embrace another paradigm: education! Certain aspects of the old model continue to make sense, for example public health’s “levels of prevention” (primary prevention instruction for all youth, e.g., digital literacy, media literacy and social literacy/SEL; secondary more situational and targeted instruction when incidents arise; and tertiary prevention and intervention for vulnerable youth). But not the laser focus on threat reduction. Internet safety also needs to fit the education model….
- Teach rather than control. Instead of fear, control and prohibition, can we embrace evidence, agency and efficacy, as in the education paradigm? Can we demand evidence-based instruction, particularly for schools? Though some scholars have criticized “Internet safety” as too much of a catch-all subject, if it is a single subject, it needs to teach skills and afford agency — enable students to help themselves and each other. Certainly by now, we no longer see control and prohibition supporting any but possibly the most vulnerable young people, right? And even for them, protection must include empowerment and self-actualization. For years, researchers throughout Europe and North America have been pointing us in this direction, and I remember hearing a researcher in Australia say back in 2013 that Internet safety education has “reached the saturation point” for youth in that country. How much more so in 2019?! What would help, I think, is just to teach “The Internet,” not just “Internet safety.” The future makers and beneficiaries of Internet policy need to know things like how the Internet works, how it started and has evolved, how it’s governed, what algorithms and A.I. are, and what their human, legal and digital rights are. [See a curriculum called the Living Online Lab for teaching that includes this kind of history and context.]
- Double down on student empowerment — because peer mentoring is powerful, we know from the research that 70% of bystanders in bullying incidents try to help the target, and students will help us help their peers. Part of this is 1) digital literacy ed – encouraging, teaching and helping young users how to report abuse on the platforms they use (or having older students do so). 2) Teach students their constitutional and human rights – including the rights of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (even though the U.S. hasn’t ratified it); see this about the UNCRC’s three categories of rights: provision and participation, as well as protection. 3) Make the connection for students between what they learn in bullying prevention and social emotional learning lessons and their digital interactions. We put great stress on their responsibilities, but what of their rights and the literacies that enable their citizenship and civic engagement wherever they are, online or offline: social literacy (SEL) as well as media literacy and digital literacy? For their effective navigation of today’s very social digital media environments, not one of these literacies can be left out.
The other part of early Internet safety we got wrong was the idea that all youth were equally at risk online. They’re not. We learned from a thorough review of the research literature in the last decade that the young people most vulnerable online are those most vulnerable offline. Many of us have absorbed that. We know that students with special needs and LGBTQ youth are more vulnerable online. But let’s think about that a for a moment longer. This is a finding about all youth. All kids have varying levels of resilience, that ability to bounce back when bad things happen – at different points in their lives, even different situations and contexts. So we can stop with the generalizations and start helping all children develop their literacies and other internal safeguards that enable effective Internet use and so much more.
The original extended version of this post can be found here at NetFamilyNews.org.