I have been thinking about online safety a lot as of late. Some of that has been related to one of the assessments we're developing. Another part has been the recent experience of a friend of mine with her teen daughter and anonymous harassment from afar. I also attended a webinar about "safe" use of social media in schools last week that actually made me nauseated (my colleague best summed up the experience when she said she felt dirty afterward). And then there was a thought-provoking on how Parents Struggle with Cyberbullying in Sunday's NYT.
I'll get into the specifics of the webinar later this week, but for now, let me say that my takeaway from all of these experiences in the past week is simply that there is no common definition of what it means to be "safe" online---and this is creating a lot of strife. One of the most striking things about the NYT article is that in each case, in spite of bullies being caught/punished, nearly no one was very happy with the outcome. Some parents thought the other parents should apologize. Other parents didn't think that what their kid did was a big deal. Parents who tried to help their children solve the problem often made the situation worse.
And schools? For the most part, they stayed out of it. I find this particularly interesting. Considering the number of stories (and lawsuits) about schools stepping in to punish what students post on Facebook or keep in their cell phones, it would appear that school administration only becomes involved when it serves their own own purpose. When a family brings up something from the outside, districts are reluctant to become involved. Most Acceptable Use Policies and filtering in schools are designed to squelch these conversations. If we block kids from Facebook, blogs, and wikipedia at school...we don't have to deal with the fallout at home, right? Here, too---we do not agree about what safe use of the Internet is.
All of this is really a cover for some more difficult things to define. One of the speakers in last week's webinar kept referencing "inappropriate language" on the Internet. I kept saying to my screen, "What does that mean? Who decides? Have you never been to a library?" Ditto for "obscene images" and "pornography." Somewhere in your school district, someone is deciding what these things are---and it probably isn't you. While I find it unlikely that we would all agree on what these things mean, I don't know that we'll ever get to Internet Safety without some guidelines around these.
At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of adults to make good decisions on behalf of our students (and include their input). What I see more and more of when it comes to technology is abdication of this role by the parent. My friend described the relief her daughter felt when the child's Facebook page was completely taken down and texting removed from the cell phone. The NYT article includes a similar story of relief on the part of the child and recognition by the parent that kids are not ready for shouldering all of the responsibilities that come with an online world. They need us as adults to step up for guidance. Will our schools ever be ready?