Protect kids online by empowering them to explore on their own, not by restrictive rules

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.

By , Guest Blogger

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    Empowering children to explore technology takes patience and trust, but is more beneficial than protectionist approaches. William McCoy, 8, uses a iPad to take a photo of former US President Bill Clinton as he speaks at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha while campaigning for the Democratic Party, Nov. 1, 2012.
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Readers, this post (like a few others, recently) is inspired by my participation on the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet 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, successful and connected learning. Please sign up to join the conversation here, and you’ll get more information shortly. [Thanks to Renee Hobbs for inspiring this particular post.]  

It probably comes as no surprise that, where the Internet’s 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 don’t necessarily represent all parents – “it was a non-representative sample of relatively affluent and well-educated mothers (with a few exceptions),” reports media professor Renee Hobbs in URI’s Media Education Lab blog – but there are lots of insights to mine from that sample, including a better picture of what “over-parenting” might look like (see also the 3rd study I link to here in the University of California, Davis, Law Review).

“Although a majority of parents use a combination of protectionist and empowerment strategies,” Dr. Hobbs writes, “most 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.”

Recommended: Mandela on kids and family: Top quotes

To control, or to engage & explore?

Take a look at Hobbs’s 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 – basically, controlling vs. exploring. As we put it in our 2009  “Online Safety 3.0″ doc, one can approach it as safety from negative stuff or as safety for 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 – why don’t 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 children’s “screen time” and the perception that increased Net use can increase risk (of “spam, malware, and porn”).

My own observations since the late ’90s have turned up other reasons, including this underlying one: the nearly 20-year development of a public discourse that has long associated children’s use of technology with negative, often worst-case, outcomes shaping the policy agenda (e.g., see this confused press release), news coverage, and to some extent the research agenda (see this from EU Kids Online about the public policy agenda). Through the years a number of studies – the headline-grabbing kind, not the academic kind – have even polled parents about their concerns, creating concerns about concerns (see this). Then there’s sociologist David Finkelhor’s very plausible hypothesis about the cause of what I’d call this digital siege mentality (see this 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 hypothesis…

Parents’ 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, shouldn’t we at least be asking about the effects of overexposure to fear on parenting and education as much as we’ve been asking about the effects of overexposure to digital screens on growing up? (See these posts referencing moral panics.)

Several years ago, researchers exploring digital ethics at the Harvard School of Education talked with a lot of young people who felt a 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 “predators,” but then not one could think of any brush they’d 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?

It’s not a binary

Hobbs suggests that maybe it doesn’t 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 empowerment itself is protective.

In the area of inappropriate content, for example, Ofsted, Britain’s education regulatory body, published a study of 37 schools’ Internet safety practices in 2010. It found that what characterized the best schools for Net safety was that they didn’t take a “locked down” approach to the Internet but rather a “managed” one. They helped students take responsibility for safe use themselves. In the area of safe social media use, learning the emotion detection and management skills of social-emotional literacy (SEL) reduces bullying and increases safety, academic performance, and social efficacy.

So certainly it’s not that we need less protection; it’s that we need a clearer understanding of how essential empowerment is to young users’ protection in user-driven media and participatory culture. Can you have mastery in anything without some trial and error in/with it? Even the online-risk research shows that young people can’t have opportunity – or develop the internal protection of resilience – without exposure to risk online. That’s true of life too, isn’t it? Trial-and-error develops life literacy. This is not new to parenting.

So as Kelly Mendoza found in her research, “parents rated protectionist strategies as simply more effective than empowerment strategies,” 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 today’s networked world.

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