Online Safety Redefined: The 3 Key Elements

Online safety has come of age. Kids now create the content we used to try and keep them away from and they do it with immensely powerful devices they carry around with them in their pockets. So it behooves us to take a step back and ask ourselves what we mean by online safety in 2015
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Online safety has come of age.

It is 21 years since "Child Safety on the Information Highway" was first published by journalist and online safety expert, Larry Magid. A year later, after the release of the notorious Rimm Study and the Time Magazine cover article on porn on the Internet, the U.S. Senate Judiciary held Congress' first ever hearing on the subject. In 1996, my own organization launched what would become the world's leading content labeling system for websites, linked to filters that parents could use to control what their kids could see on the Internet.

Since then we've had what one observer called a "technopanic" over online predators, which reached its apotheosis (or nadir) in NBC Dateline's To Catch a Predator. By the mid 2000s, we saw the rise of social media, Myspace, YouTube and Facebook. Then came smart phones and the burgeoning world of apps. Web 2.0 blew away our quaint notions about online safety. Keep the computer in the main room. Look over their shoulder. Check the history button.

Kids now create the content we used to try and keep them away from and they do it with immensely powerful devices they carry around with them in their pockets.

So it behooves us to take a step back and ask ourselves what we mean by online safety in 2015. How do we frame the challenges and concerns while also positively pointing our kids, our seniors and ourselves to the extraordinary benefits of the Internet and digital technology?

At our recent annual conference, we asked the attendees in the hall and those following along on Twitter, to help us redefine online safety for a new generation of users growing up on Snapchat, Yik Yak and Tinder as well as their tech-challenged parents and grand-parents. To kick things off, we reported on our latest research entitled, "Parenting in the Digital Age" to show that a majority (53 percent) of parents felt that the benefits of their kids online use outweighed the harms. But a large minority (42 percent) was ambivalent -- feeling the risks and rewards were about the same.

What emerged was a consensus around the three core elements of risks, harms and rewards:

1. Risks

Life is full of risks, both in the physical world and online. Climbing a tree, riding a bike, white water rafting are all risky behaviors. But a calculated risk, if done with care, can be a wonderful way to build confidence, resilience and a sense of self-worth in kids and adults alike.

Being online, signing up for an email account, downloading apps, posting updates on Facebook all pose some element of risk, particularly for kids and seniors. But if parents utilize content controls for their young kids, if we all set our privacy settings on social media sites, and we avoid the scams, unknown attachments and too-good-to-be-true offers of money and more, we can empower our children and ourselves. And we will better know how to deal with challenging content or experiences when they arise.

Of course there are bad risks or risky behaviors that increase the potential for harm to occur. "At risk kids" is a term used to denote those young people who act out online and who may flirt with danger or with strangers and who are most in need of help and intervention. A "bad" risk can tip the balance towards actual harm - whether emotional, mental or physical.

2. Harms

Just as in the offline world, there are real and serious dangers online. While incidences of a sexual predator using the Internet to abuse a child are very rare, these cases can create massive media attention and spread a sense of fear and foreboding amongst parents.

Cyberbullying can cause untold hurt and suffering, particularly among tweens and teens. Loss of privacy, of one's reputation or identity and even, loss of innocence amongst younger kids are all harms that we need to identify, report and act on -- both as individuals, but also collectively through the enforcement of existing laws and regulations. While we will never be able to eradicate evil or stop hurtful things from happening, we must do our part to mitigate or lessen the harm that bad online behaviors can cause.

3. Rewards

The benefits of being online are limited only by our imaginations. From education to communication, commerce to entertainment, we are all in the digital foothills of what the web and our technologies will bring. Many, like the author, Jeremy Rifkin, see an increase in empathy as young people, in particular, link and connect with others from across state and national boundaries and hear and see directly about others life experiences.

Many see the prospect of individualized learning using online resources as transforming our education system for the better. Our children will access health care, financial and government services and all forms of information in ways we can foresee and ways we can't even conceive and we are just entering the world of the Internet of Things, wearables, robots and implants.

As each new technology is introduced, it will be up to us in the online safety community to assess the potential dangers, create new tools, policies and educational efforts as well as to articulate and celebrate what new wonders emerge.

So, here's a working definition of online safety for 2015 and beyond:

"To acknowledge the risks, mitigate the harms while reaping the rewards of our online lives."

We can't have the rewards, for ourselves or our children, without taking some risks. We need to employ a mixture of tools, rules and schools to keep safe from the worst of the web, while exercising good digital citizenship within a broader culture of responsibility to ensure we enjoy the extraordinary benefits that technology and the Internet have to offer.

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