One problem with most of today's Internet safety messaging campaigns is that there is only one set of messages for the entire population of youth and parents. But, an extensive literature review conducted by theResearch Advisory Board found that "not all youth are equally at risk" and that "those experiencing difficulties offline, such as physical and sexual abuse, and those with other psychosocial problems are most at risk online."
To be effective, the Internet safety community has to find ways tailor its messages based on particular risk factors. Not to do so would be like inoculating an entire population for a disease that affects only a small number of people while not inoculating the very people of are most at risk. I've often worried that most of the teens and parents who are consumers of safety messages are the very people who least need to hear them.
Broader expertise needed
In addition to redefining online safety, we also need to expand the discussion. When online safety advocates gather at conferences, the room is typically filled with public policy professionals, technology experts, lawyers and sometimes representative of law enforcement.
But the cadre of professionals needs to also include psychologists, physicians, counselors, social workers, youth workers, clergy, tech educators and others involved in the lives of young people. And young people themselves need to be part of the discussion, not just to listen and parrot what adults tell them to say, but to help think through the issues, help adults understand the difference between real and imagined dangers and come up with messages that will resonate with other youth.
Internet safety and the "sexually toxic culture"
We must also look at behavior in light of the culture in which youth are being raised. I would never suggest that society should be prudish or suppress sexuality, but I am concerned by the extent to which overt sexuality--starting at a very young age--is being promoted by the media, fashion industry, music, TV, movies, everywhere. Young people are growing up in what sexual abuse prevention specialist Cordelia Anderson has referred to as a "sexually toxic culture."
Anderson chairs the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Exploitation that has drawn a connection between commercial and individual sexual exploitation with youth risk and even child sexual abuse. Kids posting or sending sexually provocative photos (sexting) according to Anderson, "is behaviorally consistent with what kids see all around them."
Overcoming this larger cultural issue is not going to happen overnight nor will all stakeholders agree with Anderson and other members of the Coalition that it's a contributing factor to teen risk. But there are plenty of studies to show that risky teen behavior is influenced by the media, social, and cultural environment around them.
The one thing I am sure about is that kids' use of the Internet doesn't take place in a vacuum. Technology doesn't put kids in danger nor will it prevent them from danger.
Disclosure: I serve on the National Coalition to Prevent Child Exploitation representing the non-profit group, ConnectSafely.org.