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Monday, July 26, 2010

Youth Safety on a Living Internet - Sorry Guys, You Missed

A year or so ago, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) put together a special "work group" whose purpose was to research and formulate usable strategies for Internet safety among children in the U.S.  This work group, titled the Online Safety and Technology Working Group (OSTWG), was comprised of some of the top names in Internet technologies (people from Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Verizon, etc.), online safety organizations (WiredSafety, Internet Keep Safe Coalition, National Cyber Security Alliance, etc.), child behavior and psychology experts, family services organizations, and legislators.  In short, the member list was a "who's who" of the Online Safety for Kids cause.

The result of their effort was a report that came out in June of 2010 (which you can download and read here) entitled Youth Safety on a Living Internet.  I have recently completed reading the 139 page document and definitely have some opinions about their efforts and especially their recommendations.

My overall reaction to the report was a contrasting mixture of applause, annoyance, and frustration.  I was thrilled that this topic was important enough for the Federal Government to put together such an impressive task force with the obvious vigor and concern that they did.  This wasn't a lame attempt at creating an image of concern to appease voters and taxpayers.  This was a genuine, well executed effort focused on the well-being of children in the U.S..  Never before has our government approached this topic with such energy.  The statistics and results that came form the research were extremely valuable and concise.  I was impressed.  However, the recommendations the group produced as a result were, I believe, mild and ineffectual.  After all of the excellent research they did, their list of suggestions was the same old list of "feel good" actions that any online safety site suggests: teach children to be good digital citizens, educate parents and teachers, improve parental controls in software, etc.  These are important concepts to be sure, but they certainly aren't ground breaking and they don't really help us advance the cause.  In summary, the group proved there was a definite, growing problem around the increasing risk to child safety online.  Their suggested solution...."keep doing what you're doing...just do more of it."  That just doesn't cut it for me.  Their own research proved that what we have been doing isn't keeping pace with the growing threat.  If it were, there wouldn't be a growing threat, right?  So, in light of the old saying "you're either part of the problem or part of the solution," I will offer my own input as opposed to being someone who just complains and offers no solution.

The first problem I saw with their solution set was that it seemed out of touch with the real online world.  While their research was very clinical and thorough, it didn't really exist in a credible plane.  What do I mean by that?  A good example is their proclamation that "we need to teach kids to be good digital citizens."  I agree with that statement but the statement in itself, nor what it implies is a solution.  40 years ago we were dealing with traditional bullying (as opposed to cyber-bullying) and there was a big push inspired by Jane Elliott's study "A Class Divided" to teach children to be better citizens and promote respect.  It was definitely a hot topic item in the early 70's.  Did it make a difference? Sure - Awareness among teachers and parents was definitely increased.  Did it inspire any dramatic changes in children?  Not really.  Has bullying decreased on playgrounds since that study?  No.  The results of any study can't be taken alone as a solution.  Kids don't care about statistics.  Reporting a rise in instances of bullying nationwide will not influence a class of 6th graders on whether or not they should bully each other.  Saying "our study shows that A & B are bad so we need to teach children to avoid A & B" is a cop out.  Yes, you should inform children and adults about A & B but you should also deal with A & B.  This study made some very valid points and brought some great information to light.  But the recommendations lack substance and, I believe, it is primarily due to their avoidance of some of the basic truths you must admit to when tackling the topic of Internet Safety.

What are these truths?  Here you go:

1.  The online world is fluid - it is always changing and it is always in motion.  Think about this:  The Internet as we know it was born in 1983 when the TCP/IP protocol was introduced.  It took 7 years for technology to catch up to it enough that it was usable to the public.  In 1994, the IMG tag was added to HTML and the first image appeared on a public website.  That's 11 years from the appearance of the Internet to the appearance of the first image file.  From 1999 to 2003 we saw the introduction of music file sharing (Napster), instant messaging, chatting, video posting, and wireless networks.  In the past four years we have been publicly immersed in Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Skype, YouTube, online multiplayer video games, iPods, smartphones (with cameras and video), iPads, eBooks, GPS, the list goes on and on.  The point is, we are now experiencing more change and new technologies in a span of a few months than we did in a few years, 10 years ago.  The rate of change is already outpacing our ability to keep up from a safety perspective and it will only get worse.

2.  We face the biggest crisis right now - Most parents, educators, and other responsible adults today were born before the online era.  We remember when there were 3 or 4 TV stations, rotary phones, and Polaroid cameras.  The online world being thrust upon is now is alien to us.  In the OSTWG report, Mike Donlin of Seattle Public Schools referred to this group of adults as being "digital immigrants" and that kids today were "digital natives."  At best we can only learn this foreign language but our children are completely fluent in it.  The adults that are trying to teach children the correct way to navigate the information super highway don't know the road or the equipment like the kids do.  It is far too easy for kids to outsmart and out maneuver adults online and that makes our task of keeping them safe extremely difficult. Some experts say "the good news is that when these kids are adults, they'll be better equipped to control things."  Maybe...but think about this:  The more they get away with now, the more the objectionable becomes mainstream.  By the time they are adults, what will "acceptable use" be?

3. The online world doesn't change human nature - It amplifies certain elements of it.  It's far too easy to blame the Internet for bad things such as pornography, sexual predation, and bullying.  But the truth is those things happened long before there was ever an Internet and they will continue with or without it.  We have to be willing to admit some behaviors as attributes of human nature, especially in children, and accept them if we are ever going to deal with them correctly.  For example, the biggest consumers of online pornography in the US is boys between the ages 12 and 17.  Will taking away online pornography reduce the drive boys feel to explore the female body?  When I was that age, it was boys waiting for the opportunity to sneak into someone's father's closet and look at Playboy magazines.  The Internet didn't create the desire, it only made the object of the desire more accessible.  The same is true with bullying.  Bullying has existed probably as long as humankind has walked this Earth.  "Cyber" didn't create "bullying" it simply changed its delivery.  Creepy perverts are going to exist whether they are cruising neighborhoods in beat up old vans or they are cruising the Internet with state of the art computers.  Online is not equal to evil, it is just the latest tool-set being used for the same old purposes.

4. Kids will seek out ways to defy rules - Has it ever not been this way?  It is, in kids minds, part of the passage to adulthood.  By defying rules and society's conventions, they are declaring their independence and showing their ability to break away from their parents (or so they think).  The pursuit of things that are considered "taboo" by kids has always existed for this reason.  In the 50's it was smoking, drinking, and sex.  In the 60's it was sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.  Today it's pornography, sexting, chatting/flirting with strangers, playing graphic/violent video games, exploring counter-cultures (like anorexia or suicide sites), cyber-bullying, etc.  Our teens and pre-teens are striving to differentiate themselves from their parents in the hopes that they will be recognized by their peers as adults.  Being online doesn't cause this, it's just a medium that makes it easier.

So, what do these truths have to do with creating a practical strategy?  Anyone trying to formulate a plan to improve online safety for children MUST embrace these concepts as reality and plan around them.  This group did not.  When a group of intelligent people spend over a year doing research and recommend things like "the improvement of parental control software" as a viable solution, it proves they haven't admitted these truths.  At the exponential rate at which technology is changing, by the time they have improved parental controls, a new technology will be released that wasn't accounted for.  In other words, by the time their new safety software comes out, it's obsolete.  Their own research proved that change is accelerating online. How is a solution that is currently not keeping up (we are already producing/improving parental control software like NetNanny and Cyber Sitter hand over fist) going to improve the situation in the future?

Another suggestion produced by the OSTWG is to "better educate adults (parents and teachers) about the online risks and ways to prevent order to enable them to teach children to be better digital citizens."  WE are going to guide THEM?  That's like having a Boy Scout teach a Navy SEAL about survival and combat tactics.  Most adults today know little about the online sandbox their children play in.  Teachers and parents lack the credibility to influence children's online decision-making and behavior.  The minute a child can say "you don't know what it's really like" you've lost.  True, this may not be an issue 10 years from now as the adults then will be digital natives.  But we still have to do something now.

I could go on and on citing examples of how the OSTWG nailed the conclusions and botched the suggestions but enough negative.  I know what you are thinking "...Alright smart guy, you seem to have all the answers, how would you solve these problems?"  Well, I don't have ALL the answers but I have two ideas that might work if we (as a society) can think a little outside the box.

First, someone has to come up with a digital "stamp of approval" for online content.  One organization sets one standard (this would be a great job for the OSTWG).  For a website to get this digital stamp of approval, they have to meet a strict set of criteria that defines their content, including restrictions about other sites they link to.  Get a company like Microsoft or Google to make a browser that only opens "approved" sites and have schools (and parents) only use that browser on their machines.  Safe search sites could be set up to only show results that have the "stamp."  One of the good suggestions by the OSTWG was to encourage industry leaders like Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Verizon, and others to assist in online safety efforts by adopting policies recommended by the group.  Well, here is their chance.  I believe any reputable site that hosts educational content would absolutely go through the process of getting their site approved so their sites could be viewed in schools.  In the 80's and 90's Apple recognized the value of indoctrinating children in their technologies by providing free or low cost computers to schools.  Their hope was that the familiarity would generate revenue as children grew into adults and purchased Apple machines.  I believe other sites like Google and Microsoft would also benefit from such an arrangement and therefore would be willing to create kid-safe, "approved" sites.  And once the giants lead the way, other organizations are sure to follow.  What would the federal government's role be in this scenario?  Aside from possibly facilitating the definition of standards (via the OSTWG), they could also legislate very severe consequences for organizations that abuse the system (e.g. changing their content after they have earned the "stamp of approval").  I know that similar systems such as digital security certificates for websites have floundered over the past few years.  Opponents could say the same thing will happen in my scenario.  But part of their problem is that digital certificates are complicated, aren't well understood by the general public, and many people are willing to risk visiting a site that doesn't have a digital security certificate if they think the site has what they want (and lets not forget that you can continue on to a site despite its lack of a certificate).  It is a system that is not well defined, not well promoted, not well enforced, and not really cared about.  If done correctly, a system utilizing a digital "stamp of approval" could work well.  You could also extend the functionality to smartphones, iPods, and video gaming systems.  Individuals could get "approved" so that they could access safe chat rooms and social media and then sites could be set up to allow people to report them if they abuse their "approval" (thereby losing it).  There are many possibilities with a system like this.

Second, channel the message through a credible source.  I work for an IT consulting company.  Our clients are some of the top companies in the US (very smart people) and they readily admit that they don't have credibility in planning and executing large IT projects.  That's why we remain in business.  The same principle applies here.  We as digital immigrants don't have credibility to guide kids through the process of being good digital citizens.  What can we do?  Bring in consultants.  We need people who are old enough to be responsible and "get" the bigger picture of our cause but are young enough and hip enough to maintain credibility and an aura of "coolness" among kids.  I'm talking about college kids.  I'm talking about the older brothers and sisters of our online children.  I'm talking about people who are still in touch with what kids today are going through and are equally familiar with the technologies.  Churches figured this out long ago.  How many churches have college kids as counselors in summer camps?  It's a concept that is sound in principle and has been proven to work.  Parry Aftab of WiredSafety, with all of her national resources, would be the perfect person to spearhead something like this.  Summer or weekend camps, weekly workshops, etc. where kids get together in a safe environment, to play games and interact with each other online and then take time to talk about their experiences with each other and with counselors who have credibility - counselors who can guide them through proper usage - by example not by lecture.  It is the typical retreat/summer camp scenario applied to the online world.  There are organizations out there that are dabbling in this as PART of their camp or retreat curriculum.  Now is the time to stop dabbling and make it mainstream.  It is, I believe, the best way to get the message across.  Of course, for this to work, the counselors would have to be the "right" kind of kids.  But this is also true of church camps and they have accomplished proper selection for years.

No, these two ideas will not completely solve the problems we face.  Both efforts would take a great deal of work to implement and be slow moving at first.  But you have to start somewhere.  We can't keep doing what we are doing (just more of it).  We are dangerously close to being lapped by the bad things lurking on the information super highway.  Online technologies gain popularity because they are new and different - their creators have thought out of the box.  It's time we do the same.

Holy cow that was a long post!


  1. Mr. Dermody. Thank you for this thorough review of the OSTWG's recent report. I downloaded the report from your site and read through it. As an educator and tax payer I share your sentiments that such a big, impressive effort should have had big, impressive results but didn't. Have you ever reached out to any of the group members to ask them why? I would be very interested in that conversation. Thanks. Calvin Thomas.

  2. Just read the OSTWG report. Talk about a roller coaster ride. Starts out great. I was excited. Then it lets you down. Then has promise. Then not what you were expecting. These people had such a golden opportunity and they wasted it. Mike, we need to put you on that committee :-).

  3. Hey nice work u do i like it .....thanks for sharing
    Internet Safety for Kids