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Cybersafety - What's the Message?

creative commons licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by William M Ferriter: http://flickr.com/photos/plugusin/12859355904

A few years ago when I lived in country Victoria I had the privilege of working with my Koori kids alongside the local police to restore old bikes. The purpose of the exercise was to not only show the students that they could achieve something, but also to build relationships between police and the wider population. It therefore made me sad when funding for the program was pulled, to me I thought that it was a priceless experience to have the police involved in a proactive situation, rather than be lumped into the reactive situation that they are endlessly placed in. However, today when a local officer came to speak to the students I was left thinking that maybe not all attempts at proactive interactions with students are helpful. Sometimes, I believe, using a uniform to add creditials actually compromises the message.

Although I agreed with many of the arguments made, such as the point that the person you are online is the person that you are in real life, nothing is ever 100% safe and secure online and for five seconds of fame is it really worth publishing material online that maybe offensive or get us into strife. I really question the 'fear' approach. With a whole lot of stories about baby monitors being hacked, sex offenders with 200+ aliases and a generation of youths who are unemployable due to their cyber footprint.

As much as the threat that the fear approach may convince some to heed and think again, there will be others who will simply big themselves in deeper. Others who will search for other ways. Others who will develop a false facade that doesn't help anyone. See for example Charles Arthur's interview with Jake Davis for the Guardian as a case study of someone who went too far. What then are we doing for those people?

Coupled with fear is an oft outdated approach to technology. Fine I can understand the purpose of using a nickname, not befriending 'strangers' and questioning how much personal data you share online. However, I question the usefulness of suggesting that students should have 'tech free weekends'. For you don't really need to be on social media, it won't kill you, you will survive. In addition to this, students were told that they really must share their passwords with their parents, that it is some sort of right.

Now that maybe true, it maybe a right for parents to dictate the rules that occur underneath their roof. However, here I am reminded of +danah boyd's message in her fantastic book, It's Complicated, that for many teens it is one thing to share their passwords with parents, but it is another to have them logging in and snooping around. "Some teens see privacy as a right, but many more see privacy as a matter of trust. Thus, when their parents choose to snoop or lurk or read their online posts, these teens see it as a signal of distrust." The reality is that friendship and a relationship with a son or daughter is not a right, it is something earnt.

In addition to this, I was left confused by the suggestion that students really need to spend more time with friends in real life. Returning again to Boyd, I think we sadly miss the place of social media in the lives of teens. Out of all the different messages presented in her book, the one that struck me the most was why so many teens flock to the virtual. Boyd explains that this is because in the past where teens may have hung out at the drive-in or the skating rink, many of these spaces have been robbed from them due to fear of the unknown, fear of what might happen.

Fine there is a place for the police to inform students about cybersafety and tips for dealing with it, such as don't respond, block the person, change your privacy settings, collect all evidence and share with someone you can trust. While coupled with this, provide some explanation of the legal consequences to online actions. Is there limit to what should be said? As I have described elsewhere, I believe many educators would benefit from reading Boyd's book for there is a lot being left unsaid in this discussion.

As it was suggested in the presentation that it is not about not getting caught, but about being a better person online. Are we really helping them do that when we continually strip teens of any sense of agency and deny the realities of their lives? What are your experiences with cybersafety? How have you tried to reach out to the students in your care?

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