Magid: Treating kids on the Web in a new way

Posted in child safety, web 3.0 by coda on December 3, 2009

I enjoyed reading Larry’s feature about online child safety and protection policies. He echoed the rhetorical “turn” in the recent Family Online Safety Institute Conference which focused on the theme of “Building a Culture of Responsibility: From Online Safety to Digital Citizenship.”

There has been very little discussion or debate, at least in relation to the analysis of current child safety and protection policies from an empowerment perspective where children become the primary actors in negotiating the issues of safety and responsible use of communication technologies. This observation by Larry, must strike a chord with many:

When I said that the Internet safety field is 16 years old, I’m dating it from the publication of the first widely disseminated Internet safety booklet and set of rules which, I confess, were written by this columnist. Back then, I came up with some assumptions like “that 12-year-old girl might be a 40-year-old man” and “posting personal information can lead to harm,” but I wrote that material long before we had research to show that these and other early assumptions weren’t actually the case.

Years ago, I stopped giving out that type of advice but others continue to perpetuate myths about Internet dangers. What made me feel good about this conference is that all of the panic messages were off the table. What we talked about instead is how we can help adults better understand how kids actually use technology and how we can work with kids to better manage risk.

Larry, describes, what I would term, the first generation Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 attitudes towards enhancing the safety of children in the online environment. Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 can be seen as metaphors which describe the attitudes of adults and policymakers towards the risks facing children in the online environment:

when Internet safety gatherings typically focused on ways adults could put up walls to protect children against predators, pornography and other dangers.

Web 3.0, I think represents the maturing process, an evolution in the way we now think about children and how they interact with social media and the strategies for negotiating the digital threat landscape. There is a wonderful insight Larry shares with us:

One theme at the conference was “one size doesn’t fit all.” Most kids are actually pretty savvy about keeping themselves safe from serious harm, but others — who are taking big risks — need more serious intervention. Risk prevention specialist Patti Agatston suggested we consider using health prevention models for Internet safety education — basic safety advice for most youth and intense counseling from mental health professionals for the small minority of young people who are taking extraordinary risks both on and offline.

We know that the World Health Organisation has long advocated an integrated health promotion approach towards preventing and containing health risks. The Ottawa Charter (1986) defines health promotion as:

“…the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health. To reach a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, an individual or group must be able to identify and to realise aspirations, to satisfy needs, and to change or cope with the environment. Health is, therefore, seen as a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasising social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities. Therefore, health promotion is not just the responsibility of the health sector, but goes beyond healthy lifestyles to wellbeing.

In other words, an integrated health promotion approach is about empowerment, engagement and collaboration in the process of shifting attitudes in the way we manage our health, well-being and lifestyles.

How is this relevant to Web 3.0 and Online Child Safety?

I very much like the idea of a public health model approach to the subject of online child safety. This approach recognises the interrelation between safety and social ends like responsible decision making, critical media literacy and citizenship. Whilst society has an obligation to ensure that appropriate institutional and regulatory infrastructures are in place to support children, I think that the public health model has sufficient rhetorical flexibility in recognising that children, equally, have an obligation to take responsibility in engaging in the process as citizens in our communities. Issues like ‘sexting’ and ‘cyberbullying’ are symptoms of the type of disengagement and disenchantment we sometimes see in society, the media and children. Strategies for promoting citizenship and responsible attitudes towards peers are worthwhile social values not only for children but adults too. I may be reading far more into Larry’s comment – but is it not safe to say that increased regulation and restriction will not lead to increased safety or promote citizenship-type values? Do we want young adults to be nurtured in an environment where suspicion is the norm? It is important to acknowledge that many young people do act responsibly and do manage their online activities without endangering themselves or others.

What I have gleaned from the feature on re-thinking the way we treat kids on the web is that in Web 3.0 we are now beginning to involve children in a public deliberation, where all of us, identify and deliberate on the best way of engaging with the subject of online safety.

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