Protect kids online by empowering them to explore on their own, not by restrictive rules(Read article summary)
Protecting kids online is no easy job, especially since the best way to keep them safe is to lessen the protectionist urge and empower them to explore at will.
Readers, this post (like a few others, recently) is inspired by my participation on theÂ Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the InternetÂ that got started last month. The task force would love to have you join us in what we hope will become a nationwide conversation about safe, successfulÂ andÂ connected learning. Please sign up to join the conversationÂ here, and youâll get more information shortly. [Thanks toÂ Renee HobbsÂ for inspiring this particular post.] Â
It probably comes as no surprise that, where the Internetâs concerned, parents are more protectionist than they are empowering or skill-oriented. The latest confirmation comes from research by University of Rhode Island student Kelly Mendoza for her PhD dissertation. The subjects of her research donât necessarily represent all parents â âit was a non-representative sample of relatively affluent and well-educated mothers (with a few exceptions),â reports media professor Renee Hobbs in URIâsÂ Media Education Lab blogÂ â but there are lots of insights to mine from that sample, including a better picture of what âover-parentingâ might look like (see also the 3rd study I link toÂ hereÂ in the University of California, Davis, Law Review).
âAlthough a majority of parents use a combination of protectionist and empowerment strategies,â Dr. Hobbs writes, âmost rely on protectionist Internet mediation overall. Even though parents report having confidence in empowerment strategies, they are less likely to use them. Parents rated protectionist strategies as simply more effective than empowerment strategies.â
To control, or to engage & explore?
Take a look at Hobbsâs examples of (bulleted) protectionist and empowerment approaches, but the former category might be summed up as controlling (rules, restrictions, parental control tools, etc.) and the latter one as engaging with our kids in digital spaces â basically, controlling vs. exploring. As we put it in ourÂ 2009Â Â âOnline Safety 3.0âłÂ doc, one can approach it as safetyÂ fromÂ negative stuff or as safetyÂ forÂ enriching, effective participation.
Hobbs reflects on why parents lean to the protectionist approach. If they have confidence in empowerment, as Mendoza found, what are the downsides â why donât they adopt an enabling approach? She offers two possible reasons: the considerable time that productive engagement requires when parents are trying to reduce, not increase, their childrenâs âscreen timeâ and the perception that increased Net use can increase risk (of âspam, malware, and pornâ).
My own observations since the late â90s have turned up other reasons, including this underlying one: the nearly 20-year development of a public discourse that has long associated childrenâs use of technology with negative, often worst-case, outcomes shaping the policy agenda (e.g., seeÂ this confused press release), news coverage, and to some extent theÂ research agendaÂ (seeÂ this from EU Kids OnlineÂ about the public policy agenda). Through the years a number of studies â the headline-grabbing kind, not the academic kind â have even polled parents about their concerns, creating concerns about concerns (seeÂ this). Then thereâs sociologistÂ David Finkelhorâs very plausible hypothesisÂ about the cause of what Iâd call this digital siege mentality (seeÂ thisÂ about a possible antidote for parents). It could be argued that fear has hijacked the national discourse about children in digital media and 21st-century learning.
So I have a hypothesisâŚ
Parentsâ continuous exposure, over a decade and a half, to negative political messaging and news reporting and lack of exposure to social media research (exposing the positive and neutral impacts of digital media) has biased them toward controlling rather than exploring new media with their children. Whether or not you agree, shouldnât we at least be asking about the effects of overexposure to fear on parenting and education as much as weâve been asking about the effects of overexposure to digital screens on growing up? (SeeÂ these posts referencing moral panics.)
Several years ago,Â researchers exploring digital ethicsÂ at the Harvard School of Education talked with a lot of young people who felt aÂ lack of efficacy online and a lack of any consequence to their media use. Not a big surprise with social media being consistently represented as, at best, a waste of time and young people as time-wasters, media addicts, and potential victims of pornographers, predators, and cyberbullies. In my own experience asking a group of 7th-graders what they thought the No. 1 Internet risk was, they reflexively answered âpredators,â but then not one could think of any brush theyâd had with a predator, nor did they know anybody who had. So how effective is it to spread misinformation and instill in our children exaggerated fears, powerlessness, and a reflexive deprecation of the very media they need to master?
Itâs not a binary
Hobbs suggests that maybe it doesnât have to be an either/or, protectionist vs. empowering binary. She writes that both are needed. I agree, but what I also yearn to see in the public discussion about youth safety is more signs of a growing understanding that empowermentÂ itselfÂ is protective.
In the area of inappropriate content, for example, Ofsted, Britainâs education regulatory body, published aÂ studyÂ of 37 schoolsâ Internet safety practices in 2010. It found that what characterized the best schools for Net safety was that they didnât take a âlocked downâ approach to the Internet but rather a âmanagedâ one. They helped students take responsibility for safe use themselves. In the area of safeÂ social mediaÂ use, learning the emotion detection and management skills of social-emotional literacy (SEL)Â reduces bullying and increases safety, academic performance, and social efficacy.
So certainly itâs not that we need less protection; itâs that we need a clearer understanding of how essential empowerment is to young usersâ protection in user-driven media and participatory culture. Can you have mastery in anything without some trial and error in/with it? EvenÂ the online-risk research showsÂ that young people canât have opportunity â or develop the internal protection of resilience â without exposure to risk online. Thatâs true of life too, isnât it? Trial-and-error develops life literacy. This is not new to parenting.
So as Kelly Mendoza found in her research, âparents rated protectionist strategies as simply more effective than empowerment strategies,â Hobbs wrote. More effective for what? For keeping kids offline as much as possible, rather than for helping them develop the skills and literacies of safe, successful participation in todayâs networked world.