WiredSafety: Keeping Kids Safe and Informed Online

Wired Safety Bear

Last month, I shared a panel at Future Web with WiredSafety’s Parry Aftab.  As I was new to her work and live in DC, she invited me to her annual Wired Kids Summit, which happened today.

Unfortunately, I could only attend briefly this afternoon.  I caught the tail end of a “grown ups” panel with representatives from Facebook, Nickelodeon, Disney, and various law enforcement professionals, but mostly I was trying too hard to cool down from my walk through the 90 degree DC air to pay my best attention.

I heard a lot of questions for the Facebook representative – no surprise, given yesterday’s announcement of their renewed commitment to users’ control over privacy and identity (optimistically put, I know).  One very young man (10, 11?) pointed out that pornographers are sending out friend requests that (if one accepts) result in lurid ads showing up on one’s page.  Apparently, this is a big deal for kids who think it’s cool to collect thousands of “friends.”  Our Facebook rep reminded us that they want kids to use the “report” button, available all over the site, when this happens and emphasized that it is “not rude to turn down a Facebook friend request” from strangers.  Sage words.

After lunch, a panel of WiredSafety TeenAngels presented their own research and new PSAs on teen sexting behavior and attitudes.  For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to what kids are doing with technology these days, sexting is (broadly speaking) sending sexually explicit, nude or semi-nude, images, usually of and between minors via text, instant message, email, social networking sites, etc.  Obviously, this is linked to abusive behavior, blackmail, ostracism, and a whole lot of ugly no kid deserves.

I don’t have their numbers, but here are some things I learned from their survey results:

  • ~5% of the 10-12 years old surveyed had sent or received sexts.  This number gets close to 20% for respondents approaching 18 years old
  • Girls send the most sexts, boys receive the most sexts.
  • Sexting is very often an impulsive behavior.  It starts with snap decisions, rather than premeditation.
  • Most respondents think youth are very uninformed about the legal and social consequences of sexting.
  • Most respondents didn’t think sexting was preventable. Why?  Rebellious teen culture is one reason.

I was very impressed when two young women, one in her early 20s and one 14, related their personal experience with sexting.  Talk about courage!  Oh, and the 14-year-old?  She experienced peer abuse via sexting when she was 11.  That’s 5th grade.

It’s important to note that the WiredSafety community is not a luddite fearmongers’ club.  These folks love the internet.  They know how it empowers all kinds of kids – kids with disabilities, kids from poor families, kids who want to learn, kids who want to save the world.  It’s also not about censorship.  Parry comes off as very thoughtful about finding “just enough” regulatory and law enforcement solutions.  The heart of the work is a network of parents, kids, teacher, and kids’ media  companies working through peer-education strategies.

I also observed some interesting gender and leadership dynamics.  I met dedicated Wired Moms and whip smart tween and teen girls who were stepping up.  We heard from at least one dad.  I think many or most of the corporate executives and law enforcement representatives were men, no surprise there.  And there were a lot of younger boys, who I can only suppose were mostly in the TweenAngels program, but it seemed that it is mostly young women graduating into the high school-level leadership roles in TeenAngels.

Is the kids web a “womens’ issue?”  Should it be?  Don’t get me wrong – there are fewer things that I like more in my work than seeing women taking the lead in technology.  Also, this was a small sample of the very large WiredSafety family, so I would hate to read too much into what I saw today.  I’m a newcomer to this community.

Still, I can’t help but wonder where the strong, ethical high school age men were.  Take sexting – it seems like the boys are doing a lot of the really negative behavior here, and it is very clear that girls are feeling the worst consequences.  How can we keep those younger guys connected to their female counterparts as they grow up and start to feel the dark side of the “be a man” pressure in high school and college?

What about me?  I haven’t exactly earned the title of advocate when it comes to online safety for kids.  If I’m going to continue evangelizing for the power of a free and open internet, how am I going to take the darker elements into account?  What about the rest of the web-heads?  Unlike most of the tech-related meetings I attend, I didn’t see anyone I know (besides my host, Parry) from the circuit at today’s event.

I hope to continue talking to Parry and also to the folks at the Family Online Safety Institute about these issues.  Hopefully, I’ll find a way my work can support theirs.  I want everyone to be safe and informed as they take full advantage of the web.

Plenty of food for thought, and a teddy bear!  Never in a million years did I see myself leaving the Dirksen Senate building clasping a fluffy white teddy bear.

UPDATE:

Speaking of youth leadership online, here’s a good overview article about the new Pew Internet & American Life study, “Reputation Management and Social Media,” that shows youth taking real responsibility for their actions online.

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