Internet safety: We’re doing it wrong

Safer Internet Day is yet another global event dedicated predominately to keeping children safe online. I have to admit that this particular event had completely passed me by until I read Daniel Donahoo’s Our internet safety obsession is bad for children.

The crux of his article is not new:

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 idealised 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 recognising 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.

The article goes on to highlight the work of Danah Boyd, a researcher and youth advocate with over a decade’s worth of research and data-driven evidence behind her. Dana is challenging the myths and assumptions we are making about children and young people online by pointing out 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.

There is a disconnect between the fact that, as parents, we want the best for our children but often (and I have to include myself here) limit them because of an over-developed sense of danger. The consequence, as has been well documented, is that children spend less time outside, less time exploring their environment, less time learning and less time developing as people. And when we take these fears online, we exacerbate the problem.

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 lens 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.

As parents we should be trying to help our children learn the skills and develop the values that they will need if they are to become rounded and engaged human beings. It’s not an easy task and not a task that any of us can ever claim to get exactly right.

But I do know that to run away screaming, or to try and bury our kids in cotton wool is exactly the wrong response.

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