A federal online safety report issued recommendations for students, teachers, and parents.

A federal online safety report issued recommendations for students, teachers, and parents.

A federal online safety task force issued a report June 4, noting that the real world and the online lives of today’s students are overlapping. Although internet safety education is essential, the report says, scare tactics do little to influence the behavior of children and teenagers, who spend a large part of their lives on social networking sites, text messaging, and using other tech-based forms of communication.

Instead, the Online Safety and Technology Working Group (OSTWG), created by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said that proper education about appropriate online behavior and digital media consumption can help children evaluate potential online risks. The group suggested that the government “promote nationwide education in digital citizenship and media literacy as the cornerstone of internet safety.”

Recommendations include creating a web-based clearinghouse of online safety education research, avoiding scare tactics, promoting digital citizenship at all grade levels, establishing industry best practices for effective internet safety education programs, and looking to young people as experts in the online and digital media arenas by involving them in risk-prevention education.

Awareness efforts should be ongoing, and stakeholders should “promote greater transparency for parents as to what sort of content and information will be accessible and recorded with a given product when their child is online,” recommended a subcommittee on parental controls and child protection technology.

The report said that “protective tools” are best used in a layered approach in tandem with education and parental involvement.

“Any report about both the internet and children is necessarily a freeze frame of a rapidly moving landscape—not only because both the technology and how children use it change so quickly, but also because of the rapidly growing bodies of youth-risk and social-media research,” the group said in its report. “Thus, any recommendations about children’s online safety must take into account the dynamic nature of this landscape.”

The report emphasized that scare tactics “simply do not work” and should be avoided. Instead, educators and online safety advocates should focus on educational programs that model positive behavior.

“With all potentially negative behavior, it’s important that adults do what they can to discourage it, but avoid overreaction and ‘panic’ when it isn’t called for,” the group noted.

Online predators

Although unwanted online solicitations can have an alarming impact, recent studies have shown that “the statistical probability of a young person being physically assaulted by an adult who they first met online is extremely low,” the working group noted.

And young people’s use of social networking sites does not increase their risk of victimization, according to a 2008 report that appeared in American Psychologists.

A Berkman Center Internet Safety Technical Task Force, after reviewing peer-reviewed studies, found that “cases [of adult-to-child sexual encounters on social networks] typically involved post-pubescent youth who were aware that they were meeting an adult male for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity.”

Cyber bullying

Cyber bullying is much more common than many people think and starts as early as the second grade, the report said, while “new” issues such as sexting attract much media attention but are not as common as many initially believed.

The Berkman Center Task Force found that “bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline.”