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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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June082007

Getting Out the Message on Online Safety

I’ve often heard from educators and parents that there’s a lack of powerful messaging out there to help students understand the impact of cyberbullying and online safety in general. While it may sometimes seem like that’s the case, there are compelling public education campaigns worth noting. And one of them even wants students to be producers of those messages.

We see the pattern whenever there’s a major news story about cyberbullying, cyberstalking or some tragedy that takes place in conjunction with a student’s use of the Internet. Typically the story breaks, there are lots of talking heads appearing on TV, people ask a lot of questions, politicians make promises…. And then we go back to discussing Paris Hilton or whatever. It often seems like there’s a dearth of sustained conversation taking place about online safety in between these incidents. Sure, there are educators and other professionals who focus on the issue full-time and are doing important work, such as creating curriculum and conducting research, but from a mass media perspective, it often seems like we’ve all succumbed to a case of collective amnesia. We forget that it’s important to discuss these issues with our students consistently until the next bad news story comes around.

Thankfully, there are some powerful efforts out there to fill in these gaps. For example, the blogosphere has been buzzing about a pair of public service announcements that take a harsh look at the impact of teens showing too much skin in cyberspace. Anyone who’s ever spent five minutes on MySpace has probably noticed that lots of teens are surprisingly comfortable when it comes to posting revealing photos of themselves on their personal pages. Most of the time it’s intended as harmless fun, of course, but then there are those occasions when things spiral downward.

The PSAs, produced in partnership with the Ad Council, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the U.S. Department of Justice, are intended to show the dark side of posting suggestive photos of yourself online. In the first PSA, we see a female student going about her business on and off campus. As she walks around, she’s peppered with comments from people who have seen her photos online, from fellow students to the school football coach to the ticket guy at the local movie theatre. With each person she meets, the comments they make about her get more and more disturbing.




In the second PSA, we see another female student who’s taken a flirtatious photo of herself. In this case, though, the photo is displayed on the school’s public message board in the hallway. Random people, from students to even the janitor, walk buy and take a copy of the photo for themselves. Each time they grab a copy, a new one magically appears. The photo can’t be taken down or destroyed. Even when she has second thoughts and tries to remove the picture, it’s too late.



Of course, the problem with PSAs is that TV stations often relegate them to the wee hours of the morning, making it less likely that anyone will see them or be impacted by them. What makes these PSA so interesting, though, is that they’ve been placed on YouTube. Between the two of them, they’ve been watched nearly 150,000 times since they were published on YouTube this spring. And given the user demographics of YouTube, it’s highly likely that the majority of people who have seen the PSAs are young people who might benefit from the messages.

Meanwhile, online safety advocate Parry Aftab and her colleagues at WiredSafety.org have partnered with Beinggirl.com and Flip.com to produce a multimedia PSA using Flip’s Flash-based flip book tool. In this flip book, Aftab talks about cyberbullying and offers advice:






Of course, as an adult, Aftab’s message is most likely to resonate the most with her peers. As for getting the message to students, she’s challenging them to get involved by participating in a cyberbullying flip book contest. Students are invited to use Flip.com to tell their own stories about cyberbullying, whether factual or fictional. They’re accepting submissions until August 8, and the winner of the contest will receive a free trip to the annual WiredKids summit in Washington DC, along with a $1000 American Express gift card.

Even though there will only be one winner, the contest will hopefully aggregate a diverse collection of student-generated content, as more and more young people publish cyberbullying-related flip books on the website. Combine these with the PSAs on YouTube, and we might find ourselves with an excellent collection of resources for teaching students about online safety and cyberbullying. -andy

Filed under : Safety, Video, Youth Media

Responses

Andy,

Thanks for the great post. I think the Ad Council PSA’s are fantastic.

As a volunteer for WiredSafety, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with thousands of teens about social networking. One of the things I’ve noticed over the past year is that there is an increasing backlash from teens who are tired of the scare tactics in combination with social networking bashing from well meaning adults. They tell us, “Enough already. We get the message. We are being safe.

Studies and statistics are emerging that seem to back them up. One of our Teenangels chapters conducted a survey of 1800 students in grades 7-12 and found that for the most part kids were being safe. It’s just small percentage that are taking risks.

Dr. David Finkelhor, one of the nation’s top experts on online abuse of children provided a portrait of an at risk teen for Congress at a briefing of Capital Hill. His research shows , only 5% of these [online child victimization] cases actually involved violence. Only 3% involved an abduction.” Almost no deception was involved. “Only 5% of the offenders concealed the fact that they were adults from their victims; 80% were quite explicit about their sexual intentions.”

I think we have reached the vast majority of teens with the message and they are listening, but we have to focus on the at risk teens. We have to get the message across to the Internet daredevils who are taking unnecessary risks. We have to reach the teens from broken, abusive, and dysfunctional homes who are seeing love and understanding. This is no small task.

The PSAs are talking to the teens in a language they understand and are not talking down to them or lecturing.

I’d like to offer one more tool to help people get the message across to teens in terms that they will understand and accept. I’ve created a series of lessons and activities that I’ve dubbed “Cyber Safety through Information Literacy” IMHO, one lesson in particular is a good companion to the message in the Ad Council PSAs. It’s called “Put Your Best Foot Forward”. It provides simple activities and demonstrations that allow students to see for themselves the consequences of irresponsible or careless postings.

It’s just one step. We have to be careful to craft and deliver the right messages to the teens are at risk in a way that they will accept. We have to recognizing that social networks are important tools. We have to acknowledge the good things that kids do online and give them credit for safety measures that most of them take.

Thanks for all you do.

Art

Thanks for mentioning the competition, Andy.

Our Teenangels (the teen expert volunteers in our train the trainers program at wiredsafety.org) came up with this idea. And the people at Beinggirl.com and Conde nast have been so supportive in the Teenangels’ efforts to stop cyberbullying.

We are also developing a new line of animated characters for the younger set. We have seen cyberbullying start as early as 2nd grade, and a growing number of suicides by victims of cyberbullying. The characters are a team of sumo wrestling pandas, who can help children feel better and hopefully laugh a bit, to stop the pain of cyberbullying.

We’ll be posting them on Youtube this week and can make them available, along with coloring book pages to accompany them, and soon a guide on cyberbullying for the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders and a separate guide for their teachers, at stopcyberbullying.org and wiredsafety.org.

As unpaid volunteers, we welcome your helping get the word out and keeping the message alive.

Best.
Stay safe!

Parry Aftab
Exec Director
WiredSafety.org

It’s good to hear that so many groups are making a difference and keeping our kids safe on the internet. With all the stories on the news, one gets the impression that kids have no clue as to what they should and should not post on the internet. You’re right, Art, kid’s aren’t stupid. Most of them do realize what they are doing and there are many kids who are looking for the kind of attention that we are trying to keep them from. I think one of the best things teachers and parents can do is to be on MySpace or other blog sites and monitor the blogs of kids we know. Certainly, we can’t see everything, but we may be able to catch some bad habits before it’s too late and give some attention to those children who are looking for it in the wrong places.

I am glad to see this issue being addressed. As a high school teacher, I often have discussions with students regarding the future consequences for current actions. We have talked about people losing out on prospective jobs because of their MySpace pages or the like. Unfortunately, the nature of teenagers is to believe that bad things happen to other people. To me, this is scary stuff! Those YouTube PSAs would find success on MTV, E! or VH1, channels that gear programming towards that age bracket. This is an important topic and I would definitely share these PSAs with my students the next time the topic arose.

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