Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Putting Our Faith in Young People

I have been working on cyberharassment issues since 1995, when the Web was very young. In those days we protected adults from other adults. My WiredSafety volunteers (we were just a group, not called wiredsafety in those days) dedicated their time to helping victims of cyberabuse.

As more and more young people began accessing the Internet from home and school, we began seeing sexual exploitation incidents where adult creeps were preying on young users. That moved to cyberbullying. That in turn moved to sextortion and revenge porn. Which then resulted in sexual exploitation of young people. The world turns...

3rd-6th graders worried about cybercreeps whom they feared would kidnap them. But they were more worried about viruses, hackers and malware. Why? Because parents and teachers were very concerned about younger users breaking the computer, erasing or exposing personal information to others through P2P or hackers and corrupting their game points, gold and goods. They sometimes would raise the issue of cybercreeps, but always warned the kids not to do anything that would break the computer.

7th graders never feared anything. That's the nature of many 7th graders. They would tell me that they didn't worry about cybercreeps, since they could run faster, fight harder and defend themselves better than creepy old predators.

As the Internet developed and social networks launched, 8-12th graders were beginning to worry about their reputation and who was reading their profile posts, tweets and blogs. They worried more about their coaches, college recruiters and their parents reading things than strangers in the millions. But they began using privacy controls and selective settings to block parents, schools and fellow students they hated that day.

As their views changed and the concerns changed, they have become better armed against bad things online. They are still teens and preteens and do what teens and preteens have always done (stretch the rules, coast on the edge), but they are thoughtful, caring and dedicated to changing the word.

The teens and preteens we are selecting for our StopCyberbullying Youth Leadership Council in Canada and our Teenangels programs globally are these young people. No one knows more about how they use the digital technology than they do. They are insightful at spotting trends, risks and solutions. They need some expert guidance, but are coming up with innovative ideas.

Instead of positioning the discussion as protecting kids, tweens and teens online, let's make it about including them in ways to protect everyone and help them achieve the benefits that digital technology offers. They have more than earned a seat at the table. They deserve to start leading too.