Keeping Generation Z Safe Online

If you were to install a pool in your backyard you would of course install a fence around the pool, especially if you had young children.  While the fence is a necessary safety requirement of owning a pool it is not the best way to protect your child from drowning.  They won’t only encounter swimming pools in their own backyard, there are no fences at beaches or rivers, and a locked gate around the home pool offers little protection to someone who falls of a boat.

The best way to protect kids from drowning is teaching them to swim!

What has this got do with online safety?

For me this analogy has great parallels with much of the debate about teens and online safety.  There seems to be a lot of focus and reliance on building fences around technology, with comparatively little attention focused on teaching young people how to “swim” in the online pool.

Parents, schools, and youth organizations, who equate online safety with filters, monitors, and locked systems are like people who equate being water wise with having a pool fence- they are missing the big picture.

Some Perspective

Unfortunately the reason many people are missing the big picture is due to the misapplication of blame or concern.  Somewhere along the Web 2.0 journey, it was the technology that got labelled as being a problem not human behaviour.  The focus shifted from human behaviour being dangerous to the technology in itself being dangerous.  Hence the need arose to find solutions to the problems the technology presented.

Unfortunately technology is not the problem.  It has merely created another avenue for pre-existing human behavioural problems to manifest.

  • Young people are much more at risk from abuse or assault from people they know and meet in the real world than they are from online predators.
  • Young people who are sexually or emotionally abused in the real world are by far the most likely to engage in dangerous online behaviour.
  • Young people are more likely to be harmed online by peers as a consequences of their own online behaviour.
  • Cyberbullying is the most significant online risk for young people – with those who are personally aggressive twice as likely to be victims themselves.

That very brief list demonstrates two things. Firstly the risks are behavioural. Secondly real world risks and behaviours still present the most significant physical risk to young people.

Focusing on making technology safer with technological solutions misses the point.  We need to help our young people think and act safely. Technology is not something separate to the rest of life, but is integrated into most aspects of our lives, including our education, work, and relationships. When we make technology a separate issue to deal with, we create unrealistic problems with distorted ineffective solutions.

Embracing & Educating Not Banning & Blaming

A case in point is a study released in England earlier this year.  It demonstrated that schools who guide students rather than hide students from the digital realm achieve better long term safety outcomes.

The research found pupils given a greater degree of freedom to surf the internet at school are less vulnerable to online dangers. Of the 33 schools studied 5 were found to have outstanding e-safety.

All 5 of the best performing schools had fewer blocked sites, and used managed systems to help pupils become responsible users of technology. The report stated “In the best practice seen, pupils were helped, from a very early age, to assess the risk of accessing sites and therefore gradually to acquire skills which would help them adopt safe practices even when they were not supervised.”

This was a different outcome to the schools using locked down systems. These systems kept pupils safe while in school, but were less effective in helping them learn how to use technology safely.

The lesson is obvious. Focus on training and guiding the person to use the technology, rather trying to protect by reducing exposure to technology.

Online safety is about critical thinking and appropriate behaviour. As Tom Whitby says “We do not need Acceptable Use Policies for technology. We do not have Library Use Policy, Cafeteria Use Policy or a Playground Use Policy. The misuse and abuse of technology is behaviour and requires a common sense conduct policy.”

We can’t teach young people how to engage in appropriate and responsible behaviour by preventing access to it or taking responsibility for correct use away from them.

Helping Gen Z Be Digitally Wise

While the up and coming generation of teenagers are referred to as the Digital Natives, it doesn’t mean that they are digitally wise.  We need to impart wisdom through guiding and teaching critical thinking, media literacy, etiquette, and social responsibility.

A fantastic resource for guidance on how to do this is Anne Colliers site NetFamilyNews.org.  Anne suggests that baseline online safety education is about  mindful use of media and  civil treatment of fellow human beings.

Collier cites a list of questions used by a school in England, and adds one of her own, to be taught to kids so they are equipped to evaluate what they are viewing and doing online. This is a simple but effective means of engaging in digital guidance that is available to parents and educators alike.

  1. “Who wrote the material on this site?”
  2. “Is the information on it likely to be accurate or could it be altered by anybody?”
  3. “If others click onto the site, can I be sure that they are who they say they are?”
  4. “What information about myself should I not give out on the site?”
  5. “What impact will the information (photo, video, etc.) I give out on this site (or cellphone) have on my friends and my community?”

Emerging technology and the new social dynamics associated do pose real and genuine issues in how we raise and educate the upcoming generation.  There is a place for restricting and / or monitoring the activities of young people online, particularly young children. However protective technologies will not produce well informed and wise digital citizens. Informed, involved, and engaged adults who are committed to guiding young people in both the real and online world, are generation z’s best hope of learning to be safe online.

More focus on swimming lessons and less focus on rebuilding fences.

Image by launceston_lad

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