It's Time to Stop Letting Fear Interfere With Youth Online Freedom

"Authority, given its common style, becomes increasingly incapable of commanding respect from the young for any reason save the fear on which is it ultimately based."
-- Michael Rossman, "On Learning and Social Change," 1972

I've been an "Internet safety advocate" since I wrote the first widely circulated booklet on the subject back in 1994, but I've come around to thinking it's time for Internet safety to make way for freedom and youth empowerment.

When I started writing about Internet safety, I was genuinely worried about pornography, predators and other dangers associated with technology but, over time, my focus has shifted. I'm now far more worried about the subjugation of youth, especially now that there is plenty of research to show that the vast majority of young people are smart in their use of the Internet and mobile technology., an organization I co-run with Anne Collier, continues to offer Internet safety advice but is increasingly working in the area of youth empowerment. That's why we subtitled our, Online Safety 3.0 booklet Empowering and Protecting Youth. In her blog posts at, Anne has consistently argued that Internet safety can only be protective if it respects young people and promotes youth agency.

In a sense I've come full circle back to my student activism days of the '60s and '70s, when I was writing and traveling around the country, advocating for free universities and an end to authoritarian education. Back then, no-one in my circles was advocating keeping young people away from any form of content and -- in the wake of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement -- the last thing any of us wanted was to muzzle young people's free expression.

Yet today there are those -- in the name of "Internet safety" -- who do just that. There are several companies promoting Internet filters -- even for teens. And even young people, whose home computers and mobile devices remain unfiltered, typically have such restrictions placed on devices at their schools. And we're not just talking about porn filters. A very high percentage of American schools -- including middle schools and high schools -- block access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter. There are also products designed to monitor what teens are doing online, including some that capture every keystroke and mouse click as well as all incoming and outgoing text messages and cell phone records.

Schools and free expression

Schools are blocking the very media that young people are using to express themselves and communicate with others. It's also one of the ways people learn and is the virtual gathering place for today's social activists. Schools that block social media today are no different than schools that blocked political speech during the sixties. Today's educators may think they're protecting students and keeping them on track just as some adults in the sixties argued that political speech -- including protesting the Vietnam war and advocating for civil rights -- was an unnecessary distraction for students of that generation.

The fact is that the open Internet has been used by young people since the early nineties and those early digital natives -- now in their mid to late 20s -- seem to be doing OK, despite the ready availability of online porn, drug sites, hate sites and sites advocating all sorts of social evils. My own kids -- now 26 and 28 -- had unfettered access to the Internet during their teens and both -- along with nearly all their peers -- are well adjusted normal young adults.

Edge cases

I realize that filters can be helpful for young children who might accidentally stumble onto disturbing sites and there will always be some teens who need an extraordinary measures to protect them. There will be a small percentage of kids who bully and there will be some who lack the resilience to deal with the bullies they may encounter. But just as bullies at school don't justify denying all children freedom of assembly, cyberbullying (which is less prevalent) doesn't justify restricting online access.

Just as there are high-risk adults, there are some kids whose risk-taking or aggressive behavior calls for extraordinary supervision or monitoring, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. Adolescence is a time to test limits, hopefully in a safe and supportive home environment. The majority of youth are capable of making good decisions but adults -- especially parents -- still have an important role to play. We can have a big impact by listening to, speaking with and supporting the young people in our lives and have an even more lasting impact by serving as good role models.