Education Not Scare Tactics Will Help Protect Kids Online
6.9.10 | Authors of “Youth Safety on a Living Internet” (PDF), the final report by the federal Online Safety and Technology Working Group, say the best thing educators and parents can do to keep kids safe online is to focus on building media literacy and promoting digital citizenship.
“What we concluded,” task force member Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org, writes in a blog post, “is that we need to go beyond worrying about predators and pornography and start thinking about young people as active participants - true citizens - in an increasingly interactive online environment where young people are just as likely to create content as they are to consume it.”
The task force, which included more than 30 experts from academia, industry, advocacy groups and think tanks, was mandated by Congress in 2008 as part of the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. The group was charged with gathering information on both public and parental tools, along with approaches to educating kids to be safe and responsible digital citizens.
The report surveys the research about youth safety online and corrects some common misconceptions. The report found, for instance, that sexual predation is a problem, but is not nearly as prevalent as once believed; social media might actually protect kids; and social bullying and harassment online are starting young and kids are most often victimized by peers.
Authors call for solutions that are “fact-based, not fear-based.” Scare tactics, they say, are not successful at influencing the behavior of young people, for whom social media is so deeply embedded in all aspects of their lives.
The task force’s recommendations include incorporating more social media in schools; creating a web-based clearinghouse of online safety education research; and promoting digital citizenship and media literacy education in all grade levels.
Authors argue that there is no one approach to protecting kids online. Instead, parents and educators need a toolbox they can draw from as kids grow – which may include education, parental controls and media rating systems.
One of the most interesting points in the report notes that young people, as creators as well as consumers of media, have an important role to play in protecting themselves and their peers. As task force co-chair and ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier writes:
Because the Internet is increasingly user-driven, users need to understand that they’re stakeholders in their own well being online. Kids need to understand that their own actions and behaviors have a lot to do with how positive or negative their online experiences are. This points to the need for a new kind of media-literacy instruction – the kind that develops the “filtering software” in kids’ heads, which is much more nimble than technology or laws, usually improves with age, and goes with them wherever they go. Media literacy has always developed that filter for information consumed and is needed more than ever. The much needed new part is critical thinking about what’s outgoing, about what we text, post, share, and upload as much as what we consume.
The report recommends new media literacy education that teaches not only privacy and security, but also these crucial critical thinking skills: “While tools ranging from content filters to anti-malware programs have their place, they are not a substitute for the lifelong protection provided by critical thinking. The best ‘filter’ is not the one that runs on a device but the ‘software’ that runs in our heads.”
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