Monday, March 14, 2011

Being Safe Online Is Being Safe In Life

When I advise parents and educators that they should just say yes, when it comes to publishing online, the conversation often defaults to concerns of student safety.  I attribute this in large part to fear of the unknown from those not involved in online environments and the sensationalism of shows like Dateline’s To Catch a Predator.” The reality is that historically children’s names and photographs have been shared for years without negative ramifications.  Think coverage of youth sports programs, celebrations, valedictorians, contest winners etc.  However, when it comes to publishing online often those not deeply literate in such worlds become afraid the unknown.  

If they did know they would discover that student work can and should be published with their full name if that is the choice, or with an alias if there is fear around using a child’s real name.  That all online sites let you control privacy settings if you’d like, but there is something to be said for the idea that’s it’s never too early to start an online digital footprint.  Some say that will be the resume/portfolio of the not-too-distant future.  That it is rare you will find anyone who has run into safety issues as a result of publishing or having a presence online.  Instead, it is a result of the risky or inappropriate behavior in which they engaged.  

Simply put, the lesson is there are few rules unique to ensuring safety online, but rather, the rules are general ones that should be applied online or off.  In short, treat an online environment much as you would a playground or park.  They are fantastic settings for youth to interact, socialize, learn, and connect with new friends.  Adults should ensure the safety of the facility before allowing youth to be there.  Depending on the age of the youth, an adult should be in the vicinity, just in case something unexpected happens.  Children should be careful when talking to strangers and immediately share with an adult if there is anything that seems uncomfortable. Treat others with kindness and respect. Don’t mislead others about your intentions.  Be aware of someone seems out of place or just not right.  Report that to an adult too.  It is really the lessons we’ve been aware of for a long time.  

The difference is that when it comes to online environments, I’ve often heard adults saying and believing they don’t belong there.  Take Facebook for example.  What on earth is going on there.  Parents don’t think they have the right to be their child’s friend.  Educators are being banned from interacting with children for fear that the medium will turn them into some sort of inappropriate molester.  Where has the common sense gone.  We have become a confused society that is banning communication on certain mediums which have no intent, rather than addressing the behaviors we are trying to prevent.  

When educators and students are empowered to use online tools her are some of the terrific things that happen.  
Think about it.  Have you ever known someone who acted appropriately online who ended up in danger?  If your answer is yes, is this really a function of the medium or the behavior which could occur online or offline?  The fact is that if we were really concerned about keeping children safe we wouldn’t be worrying about what they are doing online.  Instead we’d start with the home which is where most cases of child maltreatment occur.  As the below chart from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children & Families Child Maltreatment Report indicates, 81% of those responsible for the maltreatment of children are indeed the child’s parents (, 2009)

David Finkelhor, from the Crimes Against Children Research Center sheds some light on this issues during an interview with ( stating:  

"It's not primarily having a social networking profile or giving out  personal information that puts kids at risk. What puts kids at risk are things     like having a lot of conflict with your parents, being depressed and socially isolated, being hyper, communicating with a lot of people who you don't  know, being willing to talk about sex online with people that you don't know."  

Similarly, the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee explains it this way:

It’s not giving out personal information that puts kid at risk. It’s not having a blog or a personal website that does that either. What puts kids in danger is being willing to talk about sex online with strangers or having a pattern of multiple risky activities on the web like going to sex sites and chat rooms, meeting lots of people there, kind of behaving in what we call like an internet daredevil.

Over at The Island View blog Tom Whitby says it well in his post The Blame Game. He says that given the hard facts it is clear our best defense for our children is education, not banning. Just as we should we would not ban family reunions, picnics, block parties, or other such functions, the Internet is also something we should not keep away from our children. The internet in general and social media in particular have the ability to not only start a revolution, but revolutionize the world.  It is a tool necessary not only for knowing about politics and elected officials, but one that is necessary if today’s children want to become one.  It is something that enables our children not to just publish for an audience of one (the teacher) or even some (the class), but a tool to connect with, communicate, with and create with others around the world who share their passions, interests, and talents.  

It’s time for adults to stop holding today’s youth in your past and instead join them in their worlds and empower and support them in discovering and developing effective ways to harness their future.  


  1. I've always wondered why it is OK for athletics programs in K12 to plaster student first names, last names, schedules, statistics, etc all over the web, but when it comes time to publishing meaningful scholarly work created by our students, adults object. This makes zero sense to me.

  2. Loved your post Lisa...I would love your thoughts, or even a post that directly talks to early years students on this. Your first paragraph lists this:

    "Think coverage of youth sports programs, celebrations, valedictorians, contest winners etc."

    Those groups are mostly, or exclusively, linked to high school age students.

    How early do you think a student, on their own, should start their digital footprint. I would love your thoughts on this.

    Great post :)

  3. @matt, agree
    @George Couros,
    George, great question. There has been such hype about student online safety that adults are scared silly without much basis for it. As I mentioned in my post being unsafe online is similar to in life. Don't engage with strangers, ensure an adult you trust is aware of your actions, etc. Another thing is to really look at the info behind the scare statistics. They're often quite misleading for instance there are stats of minors being solicited online, dig a little deeper and you find these are minors soliciting each other i.e. secondary school age students...not adult strangers going after young children.

    At Alan November's BLC conference a couple years back a participant said, "If a student isn't going to take control of their digital footprint, who is?" We were discussing elementary students at the time.

    With younger students names have been announced in spelling bees, little league and other such activities. Back when I started teaching nearly 15 years ago I worked at an elementary school called the Ralph Bunch Computer Mini School in Harlem. All students signed release forms and there work was often published online. This was before all the media hype and the kids and parents were so proud that they were being celebrated online...similar to pride in work being published in a local paper or Highlights magazine.

    The reality is there are kids at schools all over the nation. Knowing there names/faces online doesn't make people want to behave badly but some politicians who want to come in and save the day and media who love the sensational stories would have you believe otherwise.

    Many of my high profile friends online share their children's names, pictures, work. Will Richardson is one. Penelope Trunk is another. There aren't issues when doing so. I wonder for you, have you ever had safety issues when sharing students work or likeness?

    My advice for fearful parents teachers is to have students create a thoughtful alias and avatar tied to a passion. This can later become a part of their digital footprint. This way students can authentically publish work with a consistent, searchable name without their identity being revealed is the adults are fearful.

    Does that make sense?

  4. David Finkelhor offers the voice of reason amongst the hysteria and hype of internet predators. His research demonstrates that children sharing identities online does not predict an increased risk of sexual abuse.

    "So, although Internet safety advocates
    worry that posting personal information exposes youths to online molesters, we have not found empirical evidence that supports this concern. It is interactive behaviors, such as conversing online with unknown people about sex, that
    more clearly create risk.

    When I give presentations on this topic, I mention that I am far more concerned over the 4 registered sex offenders in our neighborhood, than I am about some "internet boogieman".

    Somehow we have gotten the idea that we can block and ignore away the problem. That's why I made the Don't Let Kids Drive Alone video.

    My nine year old has already pondered the question of a digital footprint. It was an assignment in last semester's Student Blogging Challenge. I think keeping a blog is an excellent way to start building a digital footprint. If you have a moment, have a look at Science Girl Em's response to the digital footprint assignment.

  5. I agree that online privacy is the same as offline. I think adults should be informed about privacy settings. Since our society is changing so rapidly because of social media, I think everyone should have a web presence.

  6. I strongly agree with this article. It is time we address these issues of our digital footprints because that is the direction the world is going in. Kids are being exposed to the internet at earlier ages and we have to make sure they are aware that whatever they post can be traced back to them.

  7. i Think staying safe online is important. Weather its staying safe on facebook or searching google. Keep things private and dont be doing bag things, thats the only way you can stay safe online.

  8. I am planning internet safety and cyberbullying education at my school for students, parents, and teachers and would like to present more than the usual precautions. I'd like to help the community learn how on-line and off-line behavior are one; our behavior. I'm considering including social problem solving sessions as on-line problems typically begin in the off-line angst of human interaction which can be hurtful. I'd also like to include positive guidance on creating a digital footprint and being a digital citizen. I've been following your blog for insight and wonder if you have any recommendations for references. Thanks!

  9. Hi
    I do a lot of work in PLD with teachers and would love your permission to copy this off to use with them - it would allay a lot of fears.

  10. Hi Robyn,

    Please feel free to share anything on this blog. All I ask is that you provide them with a link to the blog.