Applying child development principles to online child protection

The “Boogie Man” concept is a useful tool for deterring children from doing things they aren’t supposed to do or to teach them to fear wrongdoing. Negative reinforcement is a very popular principle in child-rearing, but it ultimately leaves us with adults who cannot function because of the emphasis on dysfunction in their development. The Boogie Man approach is largely how we teach young people about Internet safety. There are lots of bad things in the online universe, but I contend that there is a positive way to reinforce online safety.

If a child burns their hand on the stove and is then only told that if they don’t do that, they won’t get burned, the lesson they have learned is only that the stove is hot and scary and will likely develop some fear of the stove. They key here is to replace fear with helpful knowledge. If a child burns their hand on the stove and then someone explains to them how stoves work, when they are hot, when they are safe, and generally how they are used, the child walks away knowing how they got burned and how to not get burned again. This allows them to build an informed relationship with a potential danger that is also ever present in many lives.

From a user-centered perspective, online safety isn’t that different. It’s common to try to scare children and teens away from risky behavior online with scary stories of the worst extremes. They walk away feeling that the danger is overblown and they haven’t learned anything about how to navigate safely. If we made common sense security and safety principles the norm when teaching young people how to interact safely online, a lot of the ineffective blanket bans we have endured in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA would be seen as unhelpful and ridiculous as they really are.

Curate the experience you have online

I don’t seek to put the burden of predatory behavior on its potential victims, abuse is abuse and abuse is a choice. But, unfortunately, there will likely always be the danger of abuse and exploitation. But what if we taught kids how to see red flags and how to filter such things out of their own online experience?

It’s easier than ever to curate the experience you have online. I personally use one social media account for just fluff like my friend’s cute babies and funny pictures of cats. I have carefully muted, unfollowed, or otherwise filtered out political opinions I find upsetting, spoilers for television and movies I care about, and it’s pretty hard for people I don’t want to talk to, to get to me. On the other hand, I use another platform to keep up with current events and things that are relevant to my work life. I have very few filters and do very little blocking there. And, because I also use it for networking, I am, in many ways, easier to access there.

By teaching kids how to guide their own experience as they begin to interact with online communities, we empower them to understand what the dangers are, how to recognize them, and how to sidestep them. So much of prevention is often centered on the idea that children can be protected from the world they live in. They can’t. And this prevents nothing except learning.

Most things are scary if we don’t understand them or are taught to fear them.

Censorship has become almost a fetish, a talisman people hide behind like a pre-technicolor, Transylvanian, peasant thrusting a silver cross at the shadow of a vampire. Most things are scary if we don’t understand them or are taught to fear them. When I was in my teens, everyone you met on a dating site was “probably an ax murderer”. Now the idea of meeting someone randomly without the aid of an app has become almost foreign. How will I know if they like the same TV I like if I can’t skim a profile?

Surveillance of kids is not the answer

At 33 in 2019, I’m on the older side of millennial and I come from an age group that very much straddled the line between no Internet at all and Internet in our hands at all times. Learning to be a global citizen, as it were, is not entirely straightforward, but a lot of online safety is common sense. Harsh censorship and surveillance only works to infantilize everyone.

In particular there is an alarming trend of fear-based, heavy surveillance in schools across the US. Capitalizing on the lack of understanding and fear of parents, so-called “safety technology” companies are selling their services to schools in a supposed effort to fish out warning signs of violence, self harm, bullying, suicidality, and all the other boogeymen of the Internet. Basically, this technology involves a truly Orwellian surveilling of everything from students’ records to their social media posts.

Aside from the gross violation of privacy these services are built around, they are also plagued by false positives. But even when these surveillance systems work as intended by uncovering disallowed content, they may not be saving children from harm. One example is how such systems reveal nude images sent between students, that the law classifies as child pornography, resulting in students being reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Although students should be warned against exchanging such images, the harms caused to them by the criminalization of this conduct in many cases far outweigh the harms of the conduct itself.

I’m frankly confused about who is being protected here. Is the criminal justice system required to deal with what is considered developmentally ordinary behavior? How many of us blow off steam on our various social networking forums, in ways that these surveillance systems could flag? How many of us deserve to be arrested for what is essentially thought crime? As a former nanny myself, I get no pleasure from calling this nanny state what it is.

But it gets even worse. Recently, I noticed an ad on Twitter for a surveillance app geared towards parents. Jiminy’s motto is “Your Children Need You: Let them know you’ve got their back online.” According to their website, Jiminy will alert parents and guardians to issues like viewing questionable or sensitive content, possibly pornographic text messages, bullying, and overuse of technology. Regular alerts and weekly reports keep parents creepily informed about their kid’s activities online.

Jiminy has a page geared toward kids who are victims—I mean, whose parents are users of the app. Here they promise that parents will get broad reports without the details. So now kids can live in fear of artificial intelligence deciding what is and isn’t OK and then alarming their parents with a lot of false positives. This whole practice is supposed to be liberating for kids and parents alike. The ironic thing is that this sort of surveillance is supposed to lead to kids being safe online but insulating kids from any actual decision making online leaves them unprepared to protect themselves.

Empower the minors in your life

So what can you do to help empower the minors in your life? The first thing you need to do is to learn how to be safer online yourself. Get really familiar with the filtering and security available on the various social media websites you and the kids in your life use. Then, when your kids are ready to participate in social networking, don’t just control their accounts for them, talk to them. Show them what you think needs to be filtered for them and why and show them how to ban, mute, unfollow, and otherwise filter out what you don’t want them to see and what they choose not to see.

The biggest step is the hardest one because it involves introspection. You need to sit down and figure out what your own values are, what do you genuinely find offensive, and what do you think is bad at first glance but actually doesn’t affect you at all if you leave it alone. Then you need to talk to your kids about your personal values and how you would like them to inform your child’s values. Then, you need to listen to your kids and where they are without judgement. If they express values and ideals that are different or even contrary to yours, talk about it, find out why. At the end of the day, you can impose rules for safety but you must accept that all people, even our children, are their own people.

Tell your kids about the dangers, explain to them that pictures they send to friends and material they post on social networking sites are there forever. Impress upon them the fact that the Internet never forgets. Explain the risks of interacting with people they can’t see and touch. But also tell them about cool people you think they might like to follow, tell your kids what sites you frequent and why. And these are things that can evolve over time. Perhaps, for instance, you don’t want to have a conversation with your five year old about Fetlife. But do show them age appropriate, fun, educational sites.

Our kids moving forward cannot be protected from the Internet. The truly effective way to keep your kids from harmful content and from posting content that may lead them to trouble, is to discuss the consequences, teach them good guidelines, and to then let them explore. Just as they grew from crawling to walking, so will they grow from ignorant to savvy.

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