The final report came out last Friday from the Online Safety and Technical Working Group(OSTWG), a task force put together as a requirement of the U.S. Congress’ Broadband Data Improvement Act of October 10, 2008. Thoroughly unfunded, the group was composed of 30 individuals representing many different callings in the Internet Safety sphere. The team was ably chaired by Anne Collier of ConnectSafely and Hemanshu Nigam of MySpace. A full list of participants and the full report can be obtained here. The dedicated participants were called upon to assess the current state of affairs for four key areas of online safety:
Status of industry efforts to promote online safety via education, technology like filters, labeling, or other initiatives designed to improve online safety for children,
Status of industry efforts to report online child pornography,
Status of industry efforts related to data retention, in cases having to do with crimes against children,
Development of technology to assist parents in protecting their children from objectionable online material.
Those four bullet point areas were parceled out to team members who each led efforts to understand the issues, invite members of the public to provide input and content and held open hearings and issued reports. Larry Magid of ConnectSafely led the Education subcommittee; Michael McKeehan of Verizon led the Data Retention subcommittee; Christopher Bubb of AOL led the Child Pornography Reporting subcommittee; Adam Thierer led the Technology subcommittee. I had the privilege of participating in a panel for the Technology subcommittee and sharing information about Norton’s Online Family safety service with the group. You will find some information about my testimony in the final report.
Having been a participant in this Internet Safety arena for several years now, I’ve seen the conversation really evolve from a panic about online stranger danger (predation) to one that better reflects the day to day concerns a child would actually recognize, such as cyberbullying. From earlier efforts like the Harvard Berkman Center report (the history of which is outlined in the OSTWG report), we’ve learned that for children who have offline risk factors for inappropriate adult contact, their online risks are higher as well. But for the dominant population of online children, the risk they contend with is cyberbullying and online cruelty, not contacts or grooming from adult strangers.
One interesting area that was highlighted in the report is the current method used by schools to block social media (like social networking, wikis and other media consumption and creation sites.) Some are criticizing this “old school” method since it prevents children from experiencing a guided introduction to the creative and educational opportunities such services and sites can provide to the classroom. Others remain concerned that the damage done by time spent on social networks or exposure to inappropriate content exceeds the potential and schools must manage and minimize risk. I look forward to more discussion of how schools can embrace technology and educators can be seen as leaders of technology and not policemen of school filters and blocks. Most of the teachers I know say that school filters fail regularly anyway and they would love more opportunities to blend offsite content with textbooks and in classroom materials.
The report emphasizes the role of youth “as agents in their own online experience.” “Research shows that civil, respectful behavior online is less conducive to risk.” If you consider most of the children you know, you would agree that those who take their good offline behavior with them in the online world tend to have a positive, productive online experience. And the role of peers in modifying behavior can be considerable. The authors of the OSTWG report indicate that future educational efforts must promote social norms of behavior among other recommendations. A “layered approach” is called for internet safety education, providing a virtual “toolbox” that government, teachers, parents, and industry can reach into for material. Such a toolbox should include:
Parental control technology
Safety features on connected devices and online services
Family and school policies
“The subcommittee urges the government to promote nationwide educational in digital citizenship and media literacy as a cornerstone of internet safety. “ We at Symantec/Norton applaud the efforts of the subcommittee for their reasoned thinking and assessment of the role each of us can play in improving the online environment of youth. It doesn’t fall solely to schools or government. Parents can do a great deal, even if they don’t think they are very technically savvy, since much of what children need to learn to be successful online is similar to offline rules of conduct. Encourage your children’s teachers to incorporate digital citizenship discussions into the classroom. Talk to your children directly about their online experiences and make sure they recognize your wish to better understand their digital lives. Participate as much as possible in their online activities and seek to keep learning about technology, social networking and other pastimes your children enjoy. While we wait for this report to have an impact in Washington that translates into funds for internet safety education, we on the home front have so much we can do to help our children today. We only need to try.