The Online Safety Message: Getting Realistic?

Nominet Award 2011 for 360 Degree Safe

I have been involved now with online safety since the inception of educational broadband over 12 years ago. A brave new world that would thrust UK schools over the threshold of the 21st Century with fast, rich, scalable and, what we visioned, would be safe environments for learning.

As the NGfL strategies evolved into ICTiS and then into Harnessing Technology, the RBCs created air-bagged environments within schools with industry standard filtering and hardware. The investment we all made in educational technologies through those times was considerable and school became the place where young people could experience innovative and exciting ICT.

Inexorably alongside these developments, the world beyond education changed too. Improvements in the speed and ubiquity of online access coupled with the proliferation of more powerful and accessible mobile devices drove an engagement with technology in a young generation previously unimagined.

At some point the curve of development of technology in schools and that of the outside world crossed. And in a very short period of time, young people’s aspirations around their own use of technologies were difficult for schools to meet, both technically and culturally. One young student talked of “powering down” as they stepped through the school gate.

Schools have adopted a wide range of strategies to bridge the obvious gap, some successfully. However, the cultural impact of technology on young people and how education addresses the issues that result from that culture remains remarkably underdeveloped. Many of the schools with whom I work find it difficult to implement an online safety curriculum that has breadth, is progressive and touches other areas of the curriculum beyond ICT.

Many of the key messages that drive many e-safety strategies also remain underdeveloped to the point where we need to question whether they any longer have real impact or relevance.

  • DON’T PUT YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION ONLINE.  Unfettered open access to detailed personal information is a risk…. full stop, whether in the physical or virtual. However, creating and publishing an online persona is the crux of most engagement with social networks whether that is Club Penguin or Facebook. What’s more important is the critical evaluation of which aspects of personal data can impact on physical safety, psychosocial safety, reputation and identity. And that these evaluations are going to need to change at what age/developmental stage the user is at. That requires a progressive educational message that changes as the user develops.
  • ONLY HAVE FRIENDS ON YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK SITE. The whole concept of “friend” has shifted considerably since the accelerated use of online social spaces; quite at odds with the “stranger danger” messages of old. Grooming remains a very real and high impact harm that results from a whole combination of vulnerabilities and risks; of that there is no doubt. Just ask CEOP or any local Force. EU KidsOnline II study ranks the frequency of that risk lower, however, than those resulting from psychological harm from immediate peers and online friends. We all need to triage who we allow in our social circles generally and there are a wide range of people with whom we engage in our lives that we automatically categorise into groups: close friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, family, mates down the pub … We manage the engagement and information flow to them without thinking about it. It is therefore imperative to emulate that skill-set in social networks; classification of social circles using friend groups, circles. This is an approach that is about empowering, not locking down; when you manage the flow of information intelligently, you can open up the channels to those you are closest to. This  is something that needs to be taught and developed as part of a sophisticated and progressive curriculum.
  • THINK BEFORE YOU POST seems like good generic advice. However, recently there have been a number of mechanisms built into social tools that publish without you having to “think before you press send”. Auto-upload features in tools like Google+ or Dropbox (if enabled) can send a phone image to a public space as soon as it has been taken. Geo-location data can be unwittingly published on Twitter, Facebook places or hidden deep within the coding of every image you take. And in many cases young people see these as very enabling devices that provide a transparent social view into their lives. It could be argued that the ethos of the social networks themselves encourage this transparency and visibility and young people seem to agree. This openness can raise vulnerabilities in the very young but there comes a stage in a young person’s development when it is empowering if managed well; when users develop a publishing intelligence that accentuates the positive whilst controlling the negative. Again, this new literacy often does not flourish if left to its own devices and needs to be taught.
  • ONCE NEGATIVE INFORMATION IS ONLINE IT IS THERE FOREVER AND OUT OF YOUR CONTROL. This is often used as a driver for the above and has been an intrinsic part of the preventative message to young people. There is a certain truth to the permanency of online content with vast amounts of content being archived and made searchable daily; digital footprint is now a legacy of this internet era and it is important to manage that well. But mistakes happen, whether they are posted by individuals or by others or by others pretending to be individuals. The apocalyptic pronouncement that “nothing can be done” is not the help a young person who is suffering the adverse effects of a post-sexting incident needs to hear. We need to begin to understand the routes at our disposal to report abuse; to know how to have content  that breaks SNS terms and conditions removed; to understand the legal aspects of protection and rights and when the law can help you; to know how to use SEO to bury bad content and promote positive; more importantly to know where to go to get help that is effective and on which you can trust and rely.

There has been a real sea-change of late into how we move the preventative message forward; beyond just safety and security into the wider discipline of digital literacy. To include the notions of ethics, citizenship, accountability, evaluation, critical thinking and the technical skills and knowledge to allow these to happen. Prensky’s “digital natives” have massive gaps in their knowledge and understanding of their own culture.

Schools, parents, communities and educators have a real opportunity to shape the behaviours and attitudes we often think are beyond our control. Grasping Digital Literacy principles and building them into our curriculum planning is a natural extension to what we already do as educators: to shape, support, advise, manage and underpin the behaviour and ethics of the young people in our care. The boundaries between the virtual and physical are blurring by the day and online is just becoming another place where people are.

A child in Norway told me a few months ago ” Education about these things is not just a nice thing; it is our right, our entitlement.”

In my next post, I’ll have a go at offering a strategy to allow this to happen including a set of guidance, resources and further links.

4 thoughts on “The Online Safety Message: Getting Realistic?

  • A well written blog Ken, and nice to see common sense thrust aside scaremongering. Personally I am tiring of seeing the same old messages being spouted over and over again that everything is bad and technology is to blame (I’m generalising); that e-safety is a lesson that should be taught rather than being embedded as a fundamental part of digital literacy with children empowered from an early age, evolving as they grow older.

    Things have got to change, yet even after all the research, the action groups, the government bodies and others we are still seeing very little change; all we get are the same “strategies” re-hashed over and over again.

    Just an opinion 🙂

    • Thanks for the feedback Alan.Much appreciated.

      This is something for which I am testing the water, as we are almost ready to release a free full Digital Literacy Curriculum based on an Anglicised version of the Common Sense Media scope and sequence structure with a whole raft of Au, Eu and UK resource mapped to it as well as links to the wider draft UK curriculum.

      As soon as we are finished I’ll send you a link to see what you think 🙂

  • Great comments, Ken, Empowerment is the key. E-safety…Empowering children to keep themselves safe, Engaging them in recognising benefit and risk,Encouraging them to be responsible users and Enabling adults to support them! We need to move forward, Alan is right.!

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