Today is SID: Safer Internet Day (SID) for those not in the know. An annual event organised by the EU to remind us that it's good to be safe online. Of course if so many of the other online days of the year weren't so unsafe, we wouldn't need a special day to remind us of the importance of keeping safe.
However, one of the challenges is that those who are targeted by this initiative - largely children and young people - can have a very different view from us adults about what being safe is. Part of growing up involves pushing the boundaries and differentiating oneself from digital dinosaurs. Telling a teenager to be safe, or NEVER do something, can have unintended consequences. Remember why banned pop records usually went to No1?
Many young people I work with feel empowered and invincible online. They are up for handling themselves and using the tools and privacy settings to protect their prized identity and reputation. When I go into secondary schools to talk about digital literacy (a broader, more appropriate term than 'e-safety') I'm often asked by the pupils, "Are you here to talk to us about paedos, Sir?" "We know how to spot a perv" they tell me without a quiver of hesitation.
My sense is that there's a lot more self-censorship and looking out for one another amongst young people online than we give them credit for. Indeed the evidence suggests that when young people are told about the risks in a rational and balanced way they are capable of keeping safe. Of course there are always those who aren't and one of the most important tasks is to better target those who work with vulnerable young people to show them how the internet can amplify vulnerability. Furthermore it's not just YP who need to be helped to stay safe online, I know many adults who are extremely conservative offline, but reckless online; but that's another story!
For many young people the only way to make sense of the risks online is to contextualise them in their own culture of humour, slang and hidden codes. Remember the dreadful term for assault "happy slapping'? Now it's "Fraping" a combination of the words "Facebook" and "rape" to describe when a 'friend' jumps on your Facebook account and sends inappropriate updates and posts to your friends purporting to be you.
For these young people, this casual cruelty is a much more an immediate threat than online predators. Then there's the term (and app) for 'Munching' when text or images are captured on a mobile phone screen to be forwarded or broadcast to all through BBM. It's not just the new apps or terminology that is lost on parents, most are unaware that these new peer activities are wrecking teenager relationships and have massive psychological re-percussions. Teenage years are hard enough as they are without this added pressure of online mistrust and reputation assignation. When you have very little in your life, your public reputation is everything.
It's good then that this year's SID theme is 'connecting generations and educating each other'. However if we adults are serious about bridging the so-called 'Digital Divide' we need to have more than just one day's focus. It's not the theory we need, it's the hands-on practical help and an empathetic understanding of the contradictions of growing up online. Many teenagers now care more about their online profiles than their offline personas. Andy Warhol was spot on when he said "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes", it's just that he should have added "...every day!"
Getting to grips with language and meaning is vital, even when it can seem shocking, inappropriate and even devaluing to our own understanding of terms. For example, is it right to use a word like 'Fraping' if it somehow trivialise the violation of physical rape?
Very few of us parents ever say to our kids as they leave home in the morning; "Good luck out there, take some risks and learn to handle yourself in the big bad world!" Or the equivalent of "break a leg" as they go on stage! Indeed, for many young people the internet has truly meant that "all the world's a stage", and to paraphrase the Bard a stage where 'all are merely players: who have their exits and their entrances; their posts, pokes and friend's lists and in time play many parts.'
Teenagers don't want to be told to 'be safe' in an abstract way. We can't expect them to simply access a sanitised world filtered by through a school filter. What preparation for the outside world is that? You can't teach kids to swim without a swimming pool. No, young people need respect from us for being able to navigate risk. They need help to recognise where the risks can lead to real harm, support to become more emotionally resilient to the meanness which is present in all walks of life, and perhaps most importantly, inspired to be leaders in their online worlds, to ensure that anti-social networking isn't the new craze. The paradox is that they don't see many of us adults modelling this. Perhaps that's the most significant risk!
In a week when Mark Zuckerberg has floated Facebook - the 21st century digital equivalent of the Globe Theatre - onto the stock exchange, perhaps it's apt to close with an earlier reflection from the Bard about the Elizabethan equivalent of 'Fraping.'
"Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed." William Shakespeare, Othello, Act 3 scene 3.
Stephen Carrick-Davies is an independent E-safety consultant, social entrepreneur and writer. His recent film with YP which explores the issue of 'Fraping' and which is funded by the Nominet Trust can be seen at www.munchpokeping.com
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