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Internet Safety: It’s Time for a New Battle Cry

In the US alone there are dozens of well meaning organizations and companies that have made Internet Safety their bailiwick. Internet security companies like Symantec, Trend Micro, and McAfee for example, are but a few that have concentrated efforts on giving parents tools to monitor their kids’ Internet behaviors.

Organizations like WiredSafety, FOSI, getNetWise, NetSmartz, Pause, Play Parents, and Common Sense Media are all committed to helping parents understand the dangers of the Internet, offering tips, advice, and survey data. Sometimes the messages are the same, sometimes not. The Department of Justice, the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission, and the FCC are just a few of the government agencies that have their hands in the Internet safety pie, too. And the Internet safety industry has grown its own brand of celebrity: John Walsh, Parry Aftab, Donna Rice Hughes, and others who have been delivering the safety stump speech for over 20 years each.
For years, Internet safety messaging was based on fear. Fear of predators coercing children to meet them in the real world. Fear of adults soliciting our children for various forms of online sex. These issues have not gone away, but it turns out that while predatory problems are the headline makers, they are not the most frequent problems.

Today’s Internet problems are more nuanced and require a more nuanced approach to safety. The groups that “get it” are shifting away from the scare tactics and looking at ways to help kids protect themselves (often from themselves). Sexting, cyberbullying, and sharing of private information are the activities that are more likely to occur on a daily basis.

What will it take to bring Internet safety advocates into modern times?

  1. Recognize the ubiquity of the Internet: We’re not just talking about protecting your PC any longer. Mobile phones, game machines, handheld devices, music services–these are all equal opportunities for predatory behavior.
  2. Involve the hardware manufacturers: Fostering a culture of responsibility and awareness takes the efforts of all involved. Companies like Verizon, Disney, Microsoft, and AOL have all played a part in shaping the Internet safety environment. Conspicuously absent in the conversation are the hardware folks. Giving kids tools like smartphones, PCs, and netbooks demands that their makers have a stake in the process too.
  3. Get the schools on the program: Recognizing that Internet skills are arguably the most important skills to cultivate for today’s students, schools should be doing much more to incorporate best practices. Computer ethics, codes of conduct, and other Internet behaviors should be part of the curriculum. Use of social networking and other popular technologies should be incorporated into academia so that kids can have good role models for how to use the technology.
  4. Disclose funding and consolidate: When it comes to Internet safety we may have too much of a good thing. The sheer number of sites and bloggers devoted to keeping kids safe detracts from the message. A bit of consolidation would be beneficial. At minimum, sites should state where their funding comes from since funding sources can certainly affect the tone of a site.
  5. Get kids involved in dialogue: Creating Internet savvy kids means including them in the conversation. Everyone knows that when kids learn from other kids, with humble opinion instead of dictum, the message is likely to create a deeper impression.
  6. Be a role model: Parents who steal music and software, or are flippant about their own privacy and security on the web reinforce the notion that the web is the not subject to societal laws.
  7. Create a national program: We ask kids to take a test to prove that they’re ready to get behind the wheel, and many states have implemented graduated licenses where you earn driving privileges (like driving at night) one at a time. Learning to navigate the Internet is at least as important as learning to drive a car, so maybe there’s something to be learned from the driver’s license model.