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.
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 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.”
Between nine and 35 percent of young people reported being bullied electronically, according to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control report. An Iowa State University study found that 54 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth had experienced cyber bullying within 30 days of the study.
The report points to a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study, which revealed that 4 percent of teenagers who own cell phones said they have sent “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images or videos of themselves to someone else via text message.”
And while 4 percent is a large number, the report said, it is not nearly as large as previously reported by various media outlets.
The Youth Online Safety Working Group (YOSWG), which consists of several law enforcement, child protection, and education organizations and agencies, has developed a document recommending, among other things, that authorities “recognize possible causes of sexting within schools by examining school climate and any underlying behavioral issues” and that they “use discretion when determining legal actions.” The group supports prevention education programs for educators and law enforcement and encourages a “team approach” to “combat the problem of sexting.”
Restricting or forbidding access to social networking sites will likely do more harm than good, because social networking sites and the way young people use those sites have created not only places for social interaction, but also “informal learning environments,” the report said.
In fact, students would greatly benefit if educators are able to incorporate social networking sites into classroom instruction.
“Unfortunately, many children are not learning effective digital or media literacy skills at home or at school,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in his presentation earlier this spring of “Digital Opportunity: A Broadband Plan for Children and Families.”
“In fact, many parents and teachers tell us that they don’t sufficiently understand digital technology, much less know how to teach kids about how use it effectively,” Genachowski said.
“Unless new media are used in schools and within families, youth are on their own in figuring out the ethics, social norms, and civil behaviors that enable good citizenship in the online part of their media use and lives,” the OSTWG said. “We are not suggesting that schools allow kids to update social network profiles in class, but rather that schools find ways to incorporate educational social-technology tools in the classroom to enhance learning and provide pre-K-12 educators with an opportunity to, in the process of teaching regular subjects, teach the constructive, mindful use of social media enabled by digital citizenship and new-media-literacy training—using the media and technologies familiar and compelling to students.”
Coordinating federal, state, and local internet safety education and research efforts would greatly help the state of internet safety education across the nation, the group said. Media literacy and computer security should be part of an ongoing national awareness effort.
“The most important recommendation we can make is for all involved with internet safety education to base their messages on accurate, up-to-date information,” the report said. “Of course, in a changing technology landscape, that’s easier said than done, but we can do better.”
OSTWG members include individuals from child safety groups, government, law enforcement, the internet industry, and educational and civil liberties groups. Subcommittees examined internet safety education, protective online tools, online data vulnerability, and child pornography.
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