Recap of This Year's Family Online Safety Institute Annual Conference: Did We Just Turn a Corner?

I'm really proud to be a board member for the Family Online Safety Institute. (http://www.fosi.org/). We just completed the 3rd annual conference in Washington DC. This year's theme was "Building a Culture of Responsibility: From Online Safety to Digital Citizenship." It's been exciting to see how, in such a short time span, this meeting has become to global "go to" event for those interested in contributing to a safer internet experience for all. The attendees included everyone who is anyone (such a cliché, I know): representatives from Microsoft, Google, Facebook, MySpace, Symantec, PBS, Verizon, AOL, and many others. There was also a good mix of private citizens, some parents, some teachers, even a group of Girl Scouts from the NY/NJ area.

I hope in future years we can attract more private citizens, especially to have parent and teen groups. It's very positive to see our industry moving away from a single-minded focus on risk of online predation to a broader, more nuanced view of online danger. This year's conference reflected that. One speaker, danah boyd from Harvard University, referenced the commonly held statistic of 1 in 7 kids will be approached by an online stranger for a sexual solicitation. "Online sexual solicitation, you've heard the 1 in 7 figure but few people ever get far enough into the information to understand it (solicitation) ranges from flirtation and teasing from peers to receiving images from strangers. Kids are agents in their own part of the process, seeking out the inappropriate attention. We can't always think of kids as victims."

Not thinking of kids as victims. This is new thinking indeed for the Internet safety world. We know that for children who are victimized by online predators, often these are the same kids displaying risk factors for predation in the real world. Larry Magid of ConnectSafely has written a compelling story covering the FOSI conference and discussing this "watershed" moment.

I'm not fully convinced we're there yet. We still need to consider situations where children are victims, even if there are layers to parse. I sometimes worry that we in our industry focus on the beloved children of a two parent family to the exclusion of those outside that cozy picture. It's easy to suggest that parents use a family safety service such as OnlineFamily.Norton to keep children shielded from the ugliness of the internet. But that scenario requires loving, concerned parents with some level of cyber knowledge as well as resources for learning about such tools and services. And it requires a sense of morality and insight into appropriate forms of content for young people and a willingness to make rules and ask they be enforced.

What about homes that lack such engaged adults? When researcher boyd visits kids' homes in America, she often finds parents watching R and X rated content right in the living room with their children in the room with them. No surprise that these same children will seek out adult material for their own entertainment. And when they create new content and post it online it will mirror the entertainment choices in their own home.

On the flip side, even in privileged environments where you might assume parents are involved, there are negative practices associated with high socio-economic groups. Boyd associates self-harm practices such as cutting and anorexia as more often found in upscale communities as a self-control or power issue for young people. The pressure of having highly involved parents with extremely high expectations can push a vulnerable child to seek out dangerous practices out of curiosity, out of psychiatric need, out of boredom and pain. You can read danah boyd's research here.

Another speaker from Harvard's Good Play project shared research into the ethical choices youth make online. The study looked at the use of ethical thinking, where young people stop to consider how their online activities might affect them down the line. For example, to what degree do young people consider the legality of illegal music downloads when deciding whether to proceed or not. The study cited a near absence of adult role models or mentors in the online lives of the young people in the qualitative study. Over 60% had an adult person as a role model in general but not for online. They talk about peers, turning to someone for support in the case of an online issue but peers aren't likely to support ethical thinking. This means if we want our young people to achieve digital citizenship, they will need additional support from adults to give proper consideration to ethical choices.

The call to action from boyd and others throughout the conference was for every caring adult to find it within themselves to mentor and advise all children about online safety. You don't have to be a parent to be the trusted adult a troubled or worried kid can turn to for support. Not everyone is in a home with caring parents. We need engagement beyond parenting, and involve educators, social workers, and the community at large.

 Another demographic we discussed was senior citizens or "older Americans and boomers." Some of the random insights shared:

  • Seniors using internet not only for social needs but also to find jobs. In poor communities, people have to work, well into their 90's to afford rent, medication, etc.
  • Only 42% of those over 65 are using the Internet. 79% of the general adult public are using the Internet.
  • Gap in internet use at home for seniors can be seen visibly by long lines for computers at libraries in communities like southern Florida.
  • Most popular online activities: email, general search and medical information search.
  • Internet can reduce depression in the elderly by reducing isolation.
  • Some seniors think if cell phone is on, they will be charged for minutes.
  • Trust - seniors used to trusting corporations and are victimized by fraud and phishing as a result.
  • Seniors love single player games: Solitaire, Tetris and often search for new free games. Can be victims of clicking a fraudulent link.
  • When victims of online scams, often seniors are ashamed, especially if dating or financial fraud involved.
  • Some online quizzes are highly invasive in order to sell data to advertisers. Seniors might reveal information that can compromise their privacy and safety.

Finally, I often use Twitter to send out quick "bites" of information from seminars and meetings. Some of my #fosi09 tweets included the following (and you can follow me on Twitter as @marianmerritt.):

  • #fosi09 to reduce hype Adam Thierer says we need to call media to task for putting fear mongerers on the air and airing false stats
  • #fosi09 need to rethink age limits on social networks (Larry Magid, referencing a conversation we had during break)
  • #fosi09 Rachel Dretzin PBS Frontline said "kids confuse confession with apology" Tend to post or email instead of face to face discussion.
  • Dr Byron #fosi09 concern that Oprah's team is still fixated on fear about web, need to get Oprah into the FOSI tent
  • #fosi09, so on the sexting issue, some said report to personal lawyer (not law enforcement) but also discuss emotional/social impact to kids
  • Byron #fosi09 call to arms for youth "take your mobile and laptop to school and say, 'hey i'm going to use it'"
  • #fosi09 Byron negative about this, discrim'y to not let kids use tech in school to learn. "Old fart attitude, worked 4 me sitting at desk"
  • don't blame tech when kids try to hide their online activities - it's adolescence to blame and normal for kids to try. #fosi09

Suffice it to say, if you are interested in helping drive the conversation about Family Online Safety, the FOSI conference is your mandatory destination. I hope you'll come join us next year!


Re: Recap of This Year's Family Online Safety Institute Annual C

A very insightful and interesting article but the conference is not inclusive enough and needs members of the genral public involved to bring more real-world experience to bear on the issues raised. We are in danger of letting legislation and software solutions take the place of good parenting whether by a single parent or a couple. As for seniors, I believe that they are a largely ignored group when it comes to IT as they are seen as not being dymnamic enough but, as you point out, they have lots to gain from better involvement with IT.  A good "work in progress" article.
We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace. ~William Ewart Gladstone

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