Teaching New Media Literacy Can Help Youth Stay Safe Online

Filed in: Credibility

By Mac Montandon

 
Behind the Research

12.17.09 | It was enough to make Anne Collier cringe. At last month’s Family Online Safety Institute conference in Washington, D.C., this statistic was bandied about: In a recent survey, 65 percent of teachers polled agreed with the idea that predators are out there, lurking in social networking sites to prey on unwitting children.

“What does that do?” Collier, a journalist and the executive director of NetFamilyNews, Inc., asks during a recent phone conversation. “It gives teachers the excuse not to use social networking in classrooms, and that’s a 21st century tool for learning.”

Collier should know. She is the co-chair, along with MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam, of the Online Safety and Technology Working Group, a taskforce formed in the wake of the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. The working group is charged with gathering information on both public and parental tools along with approaches to educating kids to be safe and responsible digital citizens. It will deliver its findings to Congress in June.

The skills that make kids media literate—such as learning to judge the credibility of online claims and content—can go a long way in keeping kids safe. But kids must have the opportunity to practice their skills, and shutting down social networks shuts down the opportunities to learn.

Collier finds the FOSI stat unfortunate but not wholly surprising. She says that statements like that are not based on the reality of the data.

“What we have found is that online safety messaging has been increasingly irrelevant to kids for years – we are just talking to ourselves,” Collier says. “It is not based on research, it is a one-size-fits-all approach and it is fear-based, not fact-based. What we absolutely have to do is stop holding schools hostage, because this leads to bans on social networks and cell phones.”

Instead, Collier hopes her group can pick up the mantle from a previous exploratory group, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which wrapped up its research earlier this year. (The group’s final report is available here.)

“They did a great job,” Collier says. “Their main findings, which I feel were outstanding, were that all children are not equally at risk, and that psychosocial makeup and environment are better predictors of risk than the technology they use.”

Collier makes this same point on ConnectSafely.org, a forum she co-directs with Larry Magid, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com. She has written extensively about the ISTTF research in a document she calls Online Safety 3.0, while stressing the importance of focusing on digital citizenship and literacy. Collier puts it this way:

For the majority of youth who are not engaged in high-risk or self-destructive behaviors, there is safety in civility. There is also safety in the critical thinking that comes with media literacy – a new media literacy that’s as mindful of what’s said, produced and uploaded as what’s read, consumed, and downloaded, mindful of one’s behavior and impact within a community.

It is her belief that by teaching kids to be good 21st-century citizens and to think critically about what they do online and with whom, educators can create a safe and rich foundation for digital learning.

As for the headline-grabbing, tech-related scandals dominating the news with increasing frequency, they can be filed under the time-tested tabloid news reflex: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Take sexting — the act of sending by text or IM nude or lewd images or provocative language — which recently took a spin as the scandal du jour. An Associated Press story from early December opened by asking: “Think your kid is not ‘sexting’? Think again.”

The facts, however, tell a different story.

On Connect Safely, Collier noted that when 1, 247 teens and young adults were recently polled, only 10 percent said they had sent a nude photo of themselves, and 30 percent said they had received or sent a messages with sexual words or images. After analyzing the survey, Larry Magid, concludes that, “Young people are far more likely to experience problems online from their peers or from their own indiscretions than from adult predators.”

Armed with an ever-expanding dossier of research, Collier hopes to relay a similar message to Congress next summer.

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