Students, experts link offline risks with Net safety

A panel charged by Congress to advise on Internet safety issues discusses in D.C. how kids can stay safe online--and how closely it may be linked to offline behavior.

Larry Magid
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.
Larry Magid
4 min read

WASHINGTON--When the Online Safety and Technology Working Group, established via the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, last week held a meeting at the U.S. Department of Commerce to discuss how to best protect kids online, members may not have been expecting to talk so much about offline behavior.

The 29-person panel, which includes representatives of Internet companies, academia, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies appointed in April by U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, offered recommendations ranging from self-protection to cyberbullying prevention. The common themes: exhibiting the same self-awareness and outward sensitivity online as you would offline, and proactively counseling youth exhibiting risky offline behavior.

As an appointed representative of SafeKids.com and ConnectSafely.org, and head of the group's Net safety education subcommittee, which ran the meeting, I got a front-row seat. Below is an overview of the discussion.

Working Group reports to Department of Commerce's NTIA

The first set of presenters was a group of public-school students here who gave a frank appraisal on the state of Internet safety education from the front lines. Although members of this student panel were quite familiar with incidences of cyberbullying and sexting (students sharing naked pictures of themselves), none had any horror stories to report, and all seemed to understand the basics for staying safe and maintaining their privacy on social-networking sites.

My favorite comment came from a middle-school student who said, "The only person who can protect you on the Internet is you." Based on what the adult presenters later said, she was quite right.

The next presenter, Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute, outlined some of the safety messages social-media and Internet companies are offering, including site-specific advice and tools, as well as and supporting nonprofits that provide safety advice. "Millions (of dollars) are being spent," Balkam said, "but more can be done."

Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use talked about the current state of Internet safety education, telling the group that much of today's school-based messages continue to reinforce the discredited notion that kids are in serious danger from adult predators.

Willard pointed out that sexual exploitation resulting from contact by someone a young person knows only through the Internet is extremely rare, especially compared to the far more likely peer-to-peer problems such as cyberbullying. She hopes to see federal funding for Department of Education-administered prevention programs that include educators, health professionals, and risk prevention experts, along with law enforcement.

Much of school-based Internet safety education to date has been funded by the Justice Department, which tends to view the world in terms of preventing and solving crimes rather than dealing with risky (yet not necessarily criminal) behavior. Willard said law enforcement needs to continue to be involved, but not as the sole voice in the discussion.

Jessica Gonzalez of the National Hispanic Media Coalition talked about the online component of hate speech, especially as it pertains to Latinos caught in an immigration debate. While Gonzalez welcomes a spirited debate on immigration issues, she warned about hate crimes against Latinos--including citizens and legal residents--as well as Web sites that may encourage such crimes.

Gonzalez's comments were followed by a discussion that included contributions from Steven Sheinberg of the Anti-Defamation League (a leader in advocacy against hate speech), Whitney Meagher of the National PTA, and Judi Westberg Warren of Web Wise Kids. All agreed that Internet safety must include teaching respect for oneself, one's peers, and the broader community. Whether dealing with ethnicity, sexual preference or anything else, they concluded that there is a real connection between hate speech and cyberbullying.

Mike Donlin of Seattle Public Schools described his district's cyberbullying program, which trains students on techniques to protect themselves and their fellow students from bullying and harassment. Consistent with other experts, Donlin said online bullying is typically associated with offline bullying. Problems that start in school often migrate online, and it's not uncommon for the bullies and victims to know each other in the real world.

Patti Agatston, a risk prevention expert from Georgia's Cobb County schools, talked about the need for safety messages tailored to a young person's specific risk profile. Drawing on health care messaging, she pointed out that all kids need what she called "primary prevention": general messages about how they can stay safe, treat each other respectfully, and protect their reputations.

Kids with somewhat higher-risk profiles, who may have less parental involvement or exhibit early problem behaviors, need "secondary prevention," Agatston said, such as adolescent therapists and other professionals to help them deal with addictive behaviors involving Internet use, pornography, sexual risk taking, or offline high-risk activities, including substance abuse, self mutilation, eating disorders, or gang activity.

These higher-risk youth, Agatston said, can benefit from "prevention programs that often involve mentoring, decision-making skills, goal setting, and peer education." As she pointed out, kids who take risks online typically also take risks in their offline lives; the problem is less about technology and more about youth behavior.

Another speaker, Alan Simpson of Common Sense Media, told the group that digital citizenship and media literacy are essential components to online safety. How kids treat themselves and others, as well as their ability to critically evaluate what they see and do online and offline, can have an enormous impact on their personal safety and the safety of those with whom they interact.

Finally, University of Southern California media professor Henry Jenkins wrapped up the day with a look at how young people use social media and how, over time, online communities can have self-regulating and protective effects on their members.

Jenkins, who has studied online gaming, fan sites, and other areas where young people interact, noted that while cyberbullying is a serious problem, people in these communities will often self-regulate by isolating and criticizing those who exhibit antisocial behavior.

This post is an adaptation of one that first appeared on Larry Magid's SafeKids.com.