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By Larry Magid and Anne Collier

Both the Internet and the way young people use technology are constantly changing, but Internet safety messages change very slowly if at all. A few years ago, some of us in the Net safety community started talking about how to adjust our messaging for the much more interactive “Web 2.0.” And we did so, based on the latest research as it emerged. But even those messages are starting to get a bit stale….

Now it’s time for Online Safety 3.0.

Why 3.0 and why now?
The online-safety messages most Americans are getting are still pretty much one-size-fits-all and focused largely on adult-to-child crime, rather than on what the growing bodies of both Net-safety and social-media research have found. Online Safety 2.0 began to develop messaging around the peer-to-peer part of online safety, mostly harassment and cyberbullying and, increasingly, sexting by cellphones, but it still focuses on technology not behavior as the primary risk and characterizes youth almost without exception as potential victims. Version 2.0 fails to recognize youth agency: young people as participants, stakeholders, and leaders in an increasingly participatory environment online and offline. Though its aim is certainly positive, its message, like that of Version 1.0, is still negative, lacks context, and is largely irrelevant to youth.

To be relevant to young people, its intended beneficiaries, Net safety needs to respect youth agency, embrace the technologies they love, use social media in the instruction process, and address the positive reasons for safe use of social technology. It’s not just safety from bad outcomes but also safety for positive ones.

Think about playgrounds. Certainly they have to be safe, but do we want our children to play in places that are only safe? As educator Barry Joseph at Global Kids in New York asked, don’t we want them to be really fun and compelling, to stimulate and enrich our kids’ physical and social development? Safety is essential but only part of what we want for the people who are going to run this world!

Online Safety 3.0 enables youth enrichment and empowerment. Its main components – new media literacy and digital citizenship – are both protective and enabling. Ideally from the moment they first use computers and cellphones, children are learning how to function mindfully, safely and effectively as individuals and community members, as consumers, producers, and stakeholders. The kind of online well-being we identify as “online safety” isn’t logically something completely new and different added on to parenting and the school curriculum.

Why now? Unless – from the perspective of teens – “online safety” begins now to show signs of intelligent life, it can accomplish very little. The need for their input and engagement is essential. Without them, we’re talking to ourselves. We invite you to help us get Online Safety 3.0 – enabling youth to participate fully and constructively in a society that functions both online and offline – off the ground. There’s literally no better time to start than now.

We need to move on to Version 3.0 because…
1. We know more about youth risk online.
2. We know more about how youth use digital media.
3. Online safety needs to be seen in the context of participatory culture and democracy.


In January 2009, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF), created by 49 state attorneys general and MySpace, wrapped up a year’s work with a report that summarized all the online safety research done to that point – a significant contribution to the public discussion. It concluded that cyberbullying and harassment are the most salient risks youth face, all children aren’t equally at risk, and children’s psychosocial makeup and environment are better predictors of risk than the technology they use.

But let’s zoom in on the risk that has gotten the most attention – and distortion – since the beginning of Web 2.0: predators. The ISTTF found that, though this remains a concern and more research on the subject is needed, online predation cases never involve prepubescent children and almost never involve abduction and assault, the scenario long associated with “stranger danger.” And even in those cases where teens do engage in a sexual relationship with an adult they encounter online, the teens themselves – at some point in the process – become actively engaged. The grooming process may involve manipulation but it rarely involves deceit. In almost all cases, the young person is aware of the approximate age and intentions of the adult. “These are not violent sex crimes,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “They are criminal seductions that take advantage of common teenage vulnerabilities. The offenders play on teens’ desires for romance, adventure, sexual information, and understanding.”

The likelihood of a young person being harmed by an online stranger in this way is quite rare, and most sexual solicitations are from peers. The overwhelming majority of crimes against youth continue to take place in the “real world,” mostly by adults known to the children. Just as in the real world, it’s neither possible nor desirable to completely isolate young people from adults, so the best protection against this type of manipulation and exploitation is critical thinking (greatly aided by engaged parenting).

More likely risks
Young people are far more likely to be harmed by peers or the consequences of their own online behavior than by adult criminals. Consider an important finding published in 2007: “Youth who engage in online aggressive behavior by making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others are more than twice as likely to report online interpersonal victimization” (Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine). Aggressive behavior increases risk while kindness, empathy, and good citizenship reduce it.

What about social-networking risk?
As for social network sites, which have received the lion’s share of media attention about predators, a major update was released by the Crimes Against Children Research Center in March 2009. Speaking to the misconception that youth risk lies in a particular technology or “place” online, it said “there was no evidence that online predators were stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on information they posted at social networking sites.” Dr. Finkelhor put it this way in an email: “It’s not about access. It’s about what kids do when interacting online.”

One size does not fit all
One problem with most of today’s Internet safety messaging campaigns is that there is only one set of messages for the entire youth population. But the ISTTF’s extensive literature review 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 to 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 who are most at risk. We’ve often wondered if the teens and parents most likely to listen to prevailing safety messages aren’t the people who least need to hear them.

Wider expertise needed
When online safety advocates gather at conferences, the room is typically filled with public policy professionals, technology experts, lawyers and sometimes representatives of law enforcement. But the cadre of professionals needs also to 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, how youth themselves are dealing with the real ones (research shows a good deal of intelligence on their part), and help adults come up with messages that will resonate with their peers.

For youth who are at risk – of sexual exploitation, domestic violence, self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide – the longstanding expertise of mental healthcare practitioners, pediatricians, and social workers, not people who specialize in something additional called “online safety,” are the safety experts of Net safety 3.0.

Sexually charged media environment
We also need to look at youth risk in light of the culture in which youth are being raised.

We join risk-prevention experts in their concerns about the extent to which overt sexuality – starting at a very young age – is being promoted by the media, fashion industry, music, TV, movies, gaming, 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 (which includes ConnectSafely) that has drawn a connection between commercial and individual sexual exploitation with youth risk and even child sexual abuse. Kids posting or sending out sexually suggestive images (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 youth.

The Net effect
The Internet is not “the problem,” but there are certainly ways in which it changes the equation – for all of us, regardless of age. We call this “the Net effect,” and it’s based on a group of characteristics packaged by social media researcher danah boyd (she prefers her initials lower case) in her doctoral dissertation, Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics. These include:

  • Persistence & searchability: the Net as a permanent, searchable archive
  • Replicability: the ability to copy and paste from anywhere on the Net, to anywhere online
  • Scalability: high potential visibility well beyond the audience you had in mind
  • Invisible audiences: never really knowing who’s seeing, reading or watching what you post
  • Blurring of public and private: an extension of invisible audiences because boundaries aren’t clear – private from whom?

Another very important factor we’d add is online disinhibition, the effect on people’s behavior of not having visual cues and voice inflection from the people to whom that behavior’s directed. Inhibitions break down, which can be good but also bad. It can have the effect of reducing empathy and civility. “We can think of the disinhibition effect as a person shifting to an ‘online’ personality constellation,” wrote John Suler in The Psychology of Cyberspace, “that may be dissociated – in varying degrees, depending on the person – from the in-person constellation.” That’s why lessons in citizenship, ethics, and critical thinking about behavior both incoming and outgoing are essential, throughout the grade levels, curriculum, and school day, ideally using the very social media and technologies so much in use outside of school.

Online security and identity theft
Online security experts tell us that there is an ever growing threat of information and identity theft for people of all ages, including youth. Sometimes it results from malicious software being planted on a computer to capture keystrokes and mouse clicks. Sometimes it’s social engineering, where clever con artists using “phishing” schemes and other tricks to get people to go to malicious sites and unknowingly download bad software or reveal passwords and other confidential information. Sometimes it’s as simple as people being careless with their passwords.

One type of identity theft that affects online youth is impersonation, where someone will post material from what appears to be another person’s social-network or email account for the purpose of embarrassing or humiliating that person. The other is a financial crime, where someone will steal – and perhaps sell – a young person’s social security number and other identifying characteristics to take advantage of the fact that most young people have extremely clean credit ratings that can be exploited by others.

Online security must be an integral part of online-safety education. Not only is it a great set of training wheels for digital literacy, it 1) trains users to protect their identities and property with prevention and repair software tools for computers, mobile phones and wired & wireless networks, and 2) teaches the nuts and bolts of social engineering and influencing, lessons that will protect a lot more than computers in people’s lives.

Though we can never completely eliminate security risk, by blending computer security and digital literacy and citizenship training, Online Safety 3.0 protects identities, reputations, property, and society, while empowering its youngest practitioners.

‘Parental control’
Certainly there are technologies that can keep kids from using social network services or visiting inappropriate Web sites. But, like fences around swimming pools, the use of filters at home and school can’t protect them forever. That’s why we teach kids to swim, so they can enjoy and benefit from swimming and not fear the water. In the same way, as Internet users mature, we need to pull back on the technological controls in favor of self control.

In an email interview, Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation, observed, “Sadly, too many parents think that using technology to track their children’s keystrokes or restrict access to certain Web sites is sufficient parenting. It is not. Parents must be involved with their children’s virtual lifestyles – developing trust, being aware of any potential problems, learning about the technologies they use, and communicating often.”

Besides, there are plenty of workarounds that tech-savvy teens can use to get around filters. Technology is by no means fail-safe – certainly less and less so as children mature. What’s most important is what we teach our kids. With any luck, teens will quickly transform into young adults and be on their own. Instilling self-control and empowerment lasts a lifetime and doesn’t require putting up “fences.” The best filter for protecting kids runs in their heads not on devices.

More than 1 type of online safety
It could be said that Online Safety 1.0, with the predator panic it cultivated, was largely one-dimensional. Protecting youth from predators deals only with physical safety. That’s extremely important to digital citizens, but we need to consider all four types of Internet safety:

  • Physical safety – freedom from physical harm
  • Psychological safety – freedom from cruelty, harassment, and exposure to potentially disturbing material
  • Reputational and legal safety – freedom from unwanted social, academic, professional, and legal consequences that could affect you for a lifetime
  • Identity, property, and community safety – freedom from theft of identity and property and attacks against networks and online communities at local, national, and international levels.


Which brings us to what social-media research is showing about how youth use digital media, technology, and devices. When young people use the Net, mobile phones, gaming devices and other interactive technology, they make little distinction between online and offline. Technology is woven into their lives. This is important to understand because “safety” and addressing risk aren’t just online propositions; they’re about online and offline experiences and more about adolescent development and behavior than about technology. “Online safety” has to incorporate research about how youth use social media as much as about what risks they might encounter in doing so.

Young people interact online largely with people they know offline, typically at school. As danah boyd observed in Taken Out of Context, “teen participation in social network sites is driven by their desire to socialize with peers. Their participation online is rarely divorced from offline peer culture; teens craft digital self-expressions for known audiences and they socialize almost exclusively with people they know.” For them, the Web and cellphones are just additional places to hang out and socialize, and they move fluidly between online and offline and from one social tool or device to another.

The learning gap
But they’re not just socializing. Based on a three-year study by the more than two dozen researchers of the Digital Youth Project (November 2008), we know that – for young people – a lot of important informal learning is going on while “they’re online, texting, or playing video games.” The report found that “the digital world is creating new opportunities for youth to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills, and experiment with new forms of self-expression.”

In fact, they’re engaged in two kinds of social networking: friendship-driven – the most common – and the more focused interest-driven social networking, which might better be characterized as social producing or creative networking.
Even in multiplayer online games there’s a great deal more than play involved – not that play is in any way a bad thing; in a recent TED talk, psychiatrist Stuart Brown said that “play is hugely important to the learning and the crafting of the brain.” In the multiplayer online game World of Warcraft, educators who play the game tell us, players are analyzing statistics and probabilities, strategizing, learning how to save currency, budget, and market, and exploring supply & demand – learning economics, math, and sociology. In his recently published book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Ken Robinson describes how many people – artists, writers, scientists, etc. – find their way or find success when they find their “tribe,” or community of shared interest. There, they find validation, feedback, competition, supportive friends to test their ideas on, and a safe place to experiment. This is the work many young people are engaged in as they use social media – informal but authentic and compelling learning experiences.

The Digital Youth study tells of “Clarissa” (17), an aspiring writer who “participates in an online role-playing board, Faraway Lands (a pseudonym). Aspiring members must write lengthy character descriptions to apply, and these are evaluated by the site ad­ministrators. Since receiving glowing reviews of her application, Clarissa has been a regular participant on the site, and she has developed friendships with many of the writers there. She has been doing a joint role play with another participant from Spain, and she has a friend from Oregon who critiques her work and vice versa. She explains how this feedback from fellow writers feels more authentic to her than the evaluations she receives in school.”

Because young people are increasingly engaged in authentic learning outside of school with social media, there is a growing gap between formal learning and informal learning, which increasingly compromises school’s meaningfulness for many youth. One student told a researcher that “if you’re doing it for a grade, it doesn’t really count.”

That is at the very least a tremendous missed opportunity for education, for young people, and for the teaching of safe media use. Right now, young people are pretty much on their own with today’s media. School not only has little input in their use of social media, it’s blocking that use because of online-safety concerns. Most teens are probably just fine with the first part of that equation, but think about it this way: For generations, educators have enriched students’ experience of the media of their times, increasing the media’s value for youth as well as society by highlighting the best in literature, governance, art, activism, and citizenship. What today’s schools are too worried to consider is that, in the process of adding the value of formal education to social media, they can bring to students’ use of those media the very skills that ensure constructive and productive writing, producing, and collaborating with social media.

“Rather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers,” the Digital Youth researchers ask, “what would it mean to think of education as a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life more generally, a public life that includes social, recreational, and civic engagement?”

Understanding how youth use social media helps us put online safety in a broader context so we can move on to the most important shift in this field of endeavor yet:


Like the anonymous quote, “peace is more than just the absence of war,” Internet Safety 3.0 is more than just the absence of danger. It’s an enabling tool – empowering young people’s constructive, full participation in participatory culture and society (see Prof. Henry Jenkins’s Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture). It includes finding ways to use technology for learning, collaboration, professional development, community building, civic engagement, and interacting with others. It’s encouraging children and teenagers to thrive in and through their use of technology. Online Safety 3.0 is not just safety from (risk and danger) but safety for maximizing the benefits of active netizenship.

Why digital citizenship and literacy are key to Online Safety 3.0
Since, as the research shows, aggressive behavior significantly increases risk, then civil behavior reduces it. 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. This kind of literacy is protection from the negative influences of everything from peers or strangers with bad intentions to advertisers to the broader media environment. And research from the Pew Internet and American Life project shows that most teens are already exercising good judgment by simply ignoring unwanted sexual solicitations from peers as well as strangers.

When people see themselves as community stakeholders – citizens – they behave as citizens because they tend to care about the well-being of the community itself and the individual and collective behaviors that affect it. So what psychologists call “social norming” happens – community members model good behaviors for each other, which is usually much more persuasive than rules or top-down efforts to control. Aggressive behavior is mitigated when youth receive training in citizenship, ethics, empathy, and new media literacy in the process of using social media and technologies as participants in a community of learners, and the results are empowerment as well as safety.
These tools of Online Safety 3.0 are empowering because they’re protective – and vice versa. They’re the bedrock not just of tech and media literacy but of life literacy.

Key elements of Internet Safety 3.0

  • Make Net safety relevant to youth and put it in the context of how they use social media, learn, and live their lives. Relevancy requires respect for youth agency as well as accountability.
* View youth as participants and ultimately stakeholders in positive Internet use rather than potential victims, and empower them to protect themselves.
* Teach new media literacy – critical thinking about what is said, produced and uploaded as much as what is read, consumed, and downloaded – as well as the skills of traditional media literacy.
  • Promote the ethic of good citizenship online as well as offline; model it for youth and encourage them to do so for their peers.
  • Keep up with youth-risk, online-safety, and social-media research; base messaging on the knowledge gained from all three of those disciplines and tailor it to relevant risk populations.
* Factor in the impacts of adolescent brain development, the Net effect, and the larger media culture on youth risk and behavior.
  • Understand the informal learning in which youth are engaged online and begin to bridge the gap between formal and informal learning by teaching enriching uses of social media in school.
* Rather than trying to “lock down” or block the Internet, support its most enriching uses and young people’s mindful participation.
  • Be accurate and honest about risks. Don’t exaggerate or use fear tactics, which are ineffective where teens are concerned. Inaccurate representation can spawn bad legislation and school policy and cause overreaction on the part of parents, which can reduce adult-child communication and put youth at greater risk.
* Expand the public discussion about Net safety to include physicians, mental health professionals, social workers, tech educators and other experts.
  • Encourage the social media industry to engage in best business practices, including promoting good citizenship in the communities they run, being responsive to user complaints, and making their response process transparent to users.

Reasons for optimism
We’re optimistic that officials are starting to “get it.” In her remarks before the first meeting of the Online Safety and Technology Working Group, Susan Crawford – Special Assistant to President Obama for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy – reminded the group to “avoid overheated rhetoric about risks to kids online,” adding that “risks kids face online may not be significantly different than the risks they face offline.”
She also said that “the risks are more subtle than the press would have us believe” and that we need to avoid trying to find “silver bullets” and recommending policy based on “anecdotes.” Crawford pointed out that we need to be careful to avoid “tech mandates,” referring to proposals for government regulations that might require the use of so-called protection technologies such as mandatory age verification or parental permission for access to interactive services.

Finally, there is the feeling that we’ve been here before. The following could have been written right now: “The young have already staked out their own mini society, a congruent culture that has both alarmed their elders and, stylistically at least, left an irresistible impression on them.” But that’s in fact a quote from a 1967 edition of Time magazine. Whether it was the counter-culture of the ’60s or the flapper culture of the ’20s, there is nothing unusual about young people shocking their elders.

Maybe adults are prone to believing such statements in proportion to our misunderstanding of the favorite media and social tools of youth. What we are sure of is that, to be relevant to youth, online safety going forward has to be empowering not restrictive. Online Safety 3.0 ­– promoting critical thinking, mindful producing, and the ethics, responsibilities, and rights of citizenship – is just that: empowering because it’s protective. This is protection that lasts a lifetime.

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