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New site offers a whole new approach to online safety

"We noticed a large gap between the belief about what people are doing online and the research showing that the majority of youth are making good choices," said a FOSI rep.

Child predators, cyber bullying, and untrustworthy teachers are just some of the internet scandals often discussed on the news concerning youth and online safety. And while programs in schools are right in teaching students about the dangers that exist online, a new website aims to promote the benefits of internet use—as well as bridge the generational gap in online use and knowledge between youth and their teachers and parents.

“Research shows that the vast majority of youth are making good choices online,” said Nancy Gifford, special projects coordinator for the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), in an interview with eSchool News. “In fact, the dangers we often hear about on the nightly news, such as sexting, cyber bullying, and predatory behavior, are not engaged in by the majority of kids.”

The site, called A Platform for Good (PfG), will launch in September with a mission to help shift the conversation away from the negative focus that so often appears in the media about youth online experience to a conversation that highlights the positive opportunities the internet has to offer. Through this approach, FOSI aims to bridge the generational digital divide by increasing adult comfort with technology and understanding of the opportunities it offers.

By leveraging existing social media platforms that young people and their parents already use, A Platform for Good will have widespread appeal for a number of age groups, FOSI believes. PfG will provide the following:

  • Kids and teens will access incentive-based, interactive activities that teach them about online safety issues in a fun, engaging way. PfG will also foster participation and collaboration with youth.
  • Parents will receive conversation starters and tips via text and social networking sites to encourage families to discuss current events and turning recent news into learning experiences.
  • Teachers will find new instructional opportunities, including interesting videos and web-based activities to inspire their students.

Because FOSI would like everyone to have access to the materials, users will not need to log in.

So far, PfG has been sponsored by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, AT&T, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Sprint, Verizon, Symantec and Yahoo!.

“A Platform for Good is an incredible opportunity to provide people with a positive message about online safety education,” said Kim Sanchez, chair of FOSI’s board of directors and a director of privacy and online safety at Microsoft, in a statement. “I am pleased that so many industry leaders are stepping up to make this initiative possible; it demonstrates the power that collaboration and innovation can bring to help families enjoy safer online experiences.”

What’s on PfG

According to FOSI, PfG is not looking to replace the many online safety programs already available in schools, but, rather, to add a new layer to the conversation by focusing on the research—including research by Amanda Lenhart at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, David Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, and Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research—that focuses on teens and their online experiences and “promoting incredible stories of technology being used ‘for good’; and work to spur dialogue between parents, teacher, and youth about what it means to be a responsible digital citizen in our ever-connected world,” explained Gifford.

One example of an activity for students on the site will be an interactive feature challenging them to help their parents learn about technology.

FOSI believes that by making teens the instructors, not only will parents learn about online experiences, but teens will look at their own behavior from a different perspective.

Some activities will even offer incentives. For example, when PfG goes live, FOSI will host a contest for teens about “What I wish my parents knew…”  According to FOSI, this is a way for teens and parents to connect and teach each other about technology. The winner of the contest will be featured on the website. Additional prizes and awards will be announced as the contest promotion nears.

Parents can also experience activities, such as conversation starters, many of which will be picked directly from the news.

For instance, “whether it is the latest celebrity sexting scandal, a dad shooting the laptop and becoming a YouTube sensation, or a new research study about online behaviors, there is much for families to talk about,” said Gifford. “We want to help arm parents with the research and facts to talk about these subjects in a way that fosters communication rather than overreaction.”

PfG also will feature a blog with contributions from leaders in the online safety arena, as well as parents, teachers, and teens to “help strike the right balance,” said Gifford.

FOSI’s PfG social media pages already are showcasing the positive uses of technology, explained Gifford. For example, PfG’s social media recently featured a Seattle teenager who developed a search engine that donates all revenue to charity, and a teacher who used Twitter to enhance the classroom experience.

“We also share some really great ideas to stay busy this summer, both online and offline,” said Gifford. “From visiting a world famous museum without ever leaving your living room to planning an outdoor adventure, we have you covered!”

Really, this is about the research, concluded Gifford: “We looked at the school climate discussion being conducted around the country, and we noticed that many schools were exploring a social norms approach to addressing school climate concerns. This approach recognizes that people—youth and adults—behave in the way they think their peers behave. In the case of online safety, we noticed a large gap between the belief about what people are doing online and the research showing that the majority of youth are making good choices.”

To sign up for updates before PfG goes live in September, click here.

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