Our Internet Safety Obsession Is Bad for Children

A couple of weeks back it was Safer Internet Day. A whole global day dedicated predominately to keeping children safe online. A big investment, across the globe of time, money, and resources. But to what end?

In the week just past the FTC came out with a series of statements expressing concern over children’s privacy from app developers who are collecting their data. This has resulted in a swift response from children’s app collective Moms with Apps who have developed a privacy disclosure program to share with parents about all the things their members’ apps don’t do in relation to privacy.

And, after my article on the curation of children’s content I have had many emails from people who are sharing with me their tools for curating children’s content, which are all about keeping children safe.

Our obsession with online safety for children is excessive. It is driven by group-think and fear, generated by media and interested parties who often ignore any rigorous evidence-based approach to the issues, or even bother to explore a simple risk analysis. Back in 2007 I wrote a book called Idolising Children, wherein I argued that we have an unhealthy obsession with children and youth culture. An obsession that sees adults trying to preserve an idea of childhood and youth that doesn’t actually exist while simultaneous trying to act out their own youthful fantasies and cling to idealized concepts of youth. It is all about lotions, potions and younger looking skin. It is about what we as adults want childhood to be – innocent and stress free. Rather than recognizing it for what it is – the process of learning, of taking risks and making mistakes on the way to becoming a capable and confident adult.

When it comes to issues of online safety and children why do we never ask the questions: what are the real risks to children online relevant to their ages and stages of development? And, why are so few people questioning whether those risks are actually real and whether our concern is warranted?

One person who is doing the work is researcher and youth advocate, danah boyd. You may know her as  @zephoria on Twitter. With over a decade of research and data-driven evidence to back her up, danah is challenging the myths and assumptions we are making about children and young people online.

I recently heard danah give a lecture on young people and privacy and her overall message is very clear. Essentially she says that the internet is simply a mirror of our society that due to its hyperconnectivity is amplified. This means our concerns about online bullying, online sexual predators and our children stumbling across inappropriate content on the world wide web are simply heightened concerns that have always existed in the world – real and virtual.

In her talk at Melbourne’s RMIT University she gave some clear examples from her research. For example, bullying has been an issue for children for decades, one we have largely ignored. The evidence base suggests that there has not been a dramatic increase in bullying because of the internet, but there has been a significant increase in the visibility of bullying because of the internet. As bullying is more visible we are hearing more stories and reports about it in the media. And, because we hear more stories and reports about it, we begin to worry about it more.

Most striking was Danah’s admission that her literature review of all the studies on online sexual predators that she completed a few years ago was ignored by leading legal and policy makers. She sums up the findings in a recent article in the New York Times:

“The most deadly misconception about American youth has been the sexual predator panic,” she said. “The model we have of the online sexual predator is this lurking man who reaches out on the Internet and grabs a kid. And there is no data that support that. The vast majority of sex crimes against kids involve someone that kid trusts, and it’s overwhelmingly family members.”

This point of view is not new. It is the same argument that British sociologist Frank Furedi put forward in his book Paranoid Parenting.  (He is also the author of the excellent book, Culture of Fear.) Furedi has long pointed to the disconnect between how we want the best for our children, but unwittingly limit their development and their ability to learn and engage with the world because of an unrealistic and unfounded fear for their safety. The fear that we can buy into as parents means we are less likely to support our children taking appropriate and measured risks from everything to playing on play equipment to their first trip into the city in their early teens. He has been saying this for 10 years. In that ten years things have only got worse and like so many parts of our lives we have taken those unfounded fears online.

And, for intelligent and engaged parents, that is the core issue: the impact our need to control, interject and govern our children’s lives is having on their ability to learn and develop into capable and thriving adults.

What do I mean?

Well, Richard Louv, author and journalist, has pointed out in his ongoing work that started with Last Child in the Woods that children are spending far less time outside, far less time in the environment and in places out of the gaze of adults. While they are the generation facing the greatest environmental challenges of modern times, they have a greater disconnect with the outdoors and the environment than any generation previous.

Limiting our children’s ability to explore online worlds is the same. Children who develop media literacy and information literacy skills by being allowed to explore and engage with online environments from an early age, in ways appropriate to their development, will be at a greater advantage because of the skills and knowledge they will attain through doing that. Children supported to explore and search for information online will actually be better equipped to manage and avoid inappropriate content. Of course, there will be those who claim that these children will have the skills to find content that parents would prefer them not to see – and perhaps they will. But, if they are respected and supported in their development and approach, if parents and teachers support the development of responsible digital citizens, then the values these young people take into the online environment may look very different from the comment walls of YouTube. Children, in most cases, do not act in the ways we imagine they will act. Our assumptions and our desire to think the worst of the worst are usually wrong in most instances.

We don’t need a Safer Internet Day. We need investment in other days. We need to change the language to address the fact we are introducing children to online environments through a len of fear. We need:

- A Digital Media Literacy Day that celebrates and educates the need for parents and teachers to facilitate children’s ability to deconstruct advertising, to create their own media and stories, to understand the digital environments and how to best navigate them.

- A Parent-Child Internet Day that encourages and supports parents and children to find spaces online and activities that allow them to collaborate and work together using digital media that is useful and beneficial and meaningful to building better relationships and a healthier view of what the online world is about.

- A Danah Boyd Day where governments and companies have to listen and consider the research and work of this researcher, rather than ignore it because public opinion would prefer that they turned the internet into a walled garden for children and young people with limited equipment and places to play.

We need, as parents, to help our children develop the values and the resilience and the capacity to engage with the online world unassisted. This is a complex process that we will never get exactly right, but we need to work with each other to try to share positive stories of our successes, to combat the amplified stories of fear the media share.

In fact, for me that is what GeekDad does. We are point where a community of engaged and interested parents come to share the best of technology, digital media and parenting. We celebrate amazing stories and share a wide range of great parenting tools (digital and analogue), we think intelligently about our decisions and responses and advocate for better content for children on a daily basis on this site. All this in our own geeky, whimsical and fun ways.

Let us all keep doing that. That is probably the best thing to do.


By Daniel Donahoo

Source: Wired - http://goo.gl/xhEsU


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This entry was posted in Child Brain Development, Child Discipline, Educational Games & Media, Parenting & Education.

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