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Government Panel Mulls Kids' Online Safety

Last year, Congress passed the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, which established the Online Safety Technology Working Group (OSTWG) a panel of 29 representatives from Internet companies, academia, non-profits and government to study and report on how to best protect kids online. In April, the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced the appointments.

Disclosure: I was appointed as a representative of and, the non-profit Internet safety group I co-direct along with Anne Collier. I was also asked to head up the group's Net-safety education subcommittee which was responsible for running last Thursday's OSTWG meeting at the Commerce Department in Washington.

The first set of presenters was a group of Washington, D.C., public school students who gave a frank appraisal on the state of Internet safety education from the front lines. Although members of this student panel were quite familiar with incidences of cyberbullying and sexting (students sharing naked pictures of themselves), none had any horror stories to report and all seemed to understand the basics for staying safe and maintaining their privacy on social network sites. My favorite comment came from a middle schooler: "The only person who can protect you on the Internet is you." Based on what the adult presenters later said, she was quite right.

The next presenter, Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute, outlined some of the safety messages social-media and Internet companies are offering, including their own site-specific advice and tools and supporting non-profits that provide safety advice. "Millions are being spent," said Balkam, "but more can be done."

Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use talked about the current state of Internet safety education, telling the group that much of today's school-based message continues to reinforce the discredited notion that kids are in serious danger from adult predators. Willard pointed out that sexual exploitation resulting from contact by someone a young person knows only through the Internet is extremely rare, especially compared to the far more likely peer-to-peer problems such as cyberbullying.

Willard hopes to see federal funding for Department of Education-administered prevention programs that include educators, health professionals and risk-prevention experts, along with law enforcement. Much of school-based Internet safety education to date has been funded by the Justice Department, which tends to view the world in terms of preventing and solving crimes rather than dealing with risky behavior where young people sometimes experience problems that don't necessarily involve criminal behavior. Willard said that law enforcement needs to continue to be involved, but not as the sole voice in the discussion.

Jessica Gonzalez with the National Hispanic Media Coalition talked about the online component of hate speech, especially as it pertains to Latinos who are caught up in the immigration debate. While Gonzalez welcomes a spirited debate on immigration issues, she warned about hate crimes against Latinos - including citizens and legal residents - as well as Web sites that she said encourage such crimes. Her comments were followed by a discussion that included contributions from Steven Sheinberg of the Anti-Defamation League (a leader in anti-hate speech advocacy), Whitney Meagher of the National PTA and Judi Westberg Warren of Web Wise Kids. All agreed that Internet safety must include teaching respect for one's self, one's peers and the broader community. Whether dealing with ethnicity, sexual preference or anything else, there is a real connection between hate speech and cyberbullying.

Mike Donlin of Seattle Public Schools described his district's cyberbullying program, which trains students on techniques to protect themselves and their fellow students from bullying and harassment. Consistent with other experts, Donlin said that online bullying is typically associated with offline bullying. Problems that start in school often migrate online and it's not uncommon for the bullies and victims to know each other in the real world.

Dr. Patti Agatston, a risk prevention expert from Cobb County (Ga.) schools, talked about the need for safety messages that are tailored to a young person's specific risk profile. Drawing on healthcare messaging, she pointed out that all kids need what she called "primary prevention" - general messages about how they can stay safe, treat each other respectfully and protect their reputations. Kids with somewhat higher risk profiles need "secondary prevention." These young people, who may have less parental involvement or exhibit early problem behaviors, can benefit from "prevention programs that often involve mentoring, decision making skills, goal setting and peer education."
"Tertiary prevention," she said "is designed to assist youth with established patterns of risk behaviors." That group generally needs the services of adolescent therapists and other professionals to help them deal with addictive behaviors involving internet use, pornography, sexual risk taking and off-line high-risk activities, including substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders and gang activity.

As Dr. Agaston pointed out that kids who take risks online typically also take risks in their offline lives. As with less severe categories of online risk taking, the problem is less about technology and more about youth behavior.

Another speaker, Alan Simpson of Common Sense Media, told the group that digital citizenship and media literacy are essential components to online safety. How kids treat themselves and others, as well as their ability to critically evaluate what they see and do on, and offline can have an enormous impact on their personal safety and the safety of those with whom they interact.

Finally, author and University of Southern California media professor Henry Jenkins wrapped up the day with a look at how young people use social media and how, over time, online communities can have self-regulating and protective effects on their members. Jenkins, who has studied online gaming, fan-sites and other areas where young people interact, noted that while cyberbullying is a serious problem, people in these communities will often self-regulate by isolating and criticizing those who exhibit anti-social behavior.

This column originally appeared on Larry Magid's site.

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