Internet Safety Month – Anne Collier Talks Teens and Online Safety

ASKfm is continuing to celebrate Internet Safety Month with our Q&A series offering different perspectives on some of the most-talked about issues relating to teens being smart and safe online. Today, ASKfm advisory board member and president of the nonprofit organization Net Family News Inc., Anne Collier, shares her thoughts on the relationship between real world and digital experiences teens face today and explores how anonymous features can be used more responsibly and safely.

Online bullying is a hot topic with parents and schools today. Are kids “meaner” today than they were in the past?  What is the relationship between real world relationships and digital (bullying on and off line)?

Kids are definitely not meaner than in the past. In fact, they’re kinder. Harassment, bullying and a lot of other social problems involving youth are down. There’s been a lot of sensationalist coverage saying the opposite, including suggestions that we’re seeing “a cyberbullying epidemic,” which is simply not true. The Centers for Disease Control released data last year showing that only 14.8 percent of ninth through 12th-graders had experienced cyberbullying in the 12 months before being surveyed, and physical bullying is still a bigger problem at 19.6 percent.

We shouldn’t simply believe what we see in the news since it can result in negative behavior as well. Exaggerating about bullying has the exact opposite effect from what we want – unless we want to spread fear or sell newspapers!

Why do teens/people in general gravitate toward anonymous features?  

When we’re with people we don’t know or aren’t sure we know, most of us feel safer being ourselves when anonymous. Students have told me they feel more comfortable complimenting and advocating for each other when they’re anonymous versus when people know who they are, and – in bullying situations – they prefer sticking up for peers anonymously. In some countries, anonymity is essential to political or even physical survival when someone stands up for others. We can’t forget that there are situations in both digital and physical spaces where anonymity can lead to increased safety rather than risk and is an important protector of free speech.

What is the most responsible way for kids and parents to engage with anonymous services and what is the potential benefit of doing so?

The most responsible way to use anonymous services is no different from responsible ways to live one’s life offline – with respect for one’s self, peers and community. With anonymity, you can freely explore ideas, identity and interests. For example, if a writer, a satirist, a political pundit, an artist or a humorist is experimenting, they will feel more protected from the judgment they’ll inevitably receive if they’re using a pen name or a screen name that doesn’t reveal who they really are.

How do you talk to your kids about Internet safety? At what age do you think it’s appropriate to start talking to kids about their behavior online?

Start talking with your kids as soon as they start using the Internet. By beginning the conversation early, they’re more likely to develop empathy and good behavior and habits. Whether it’s online or offline, kids’ behavior is influenced by their social-emotional safety. Have frequent conversations with your kids about their online experiences and let them know it’s ok to be open and honest.

As for teens, if you talk with them before there’s an issue, they’re more likely to engage with you once an issue arises and talk more openly about it. You’ll not only be building better relationships but be in a better position to ensure that your teens are using social media safely.

We all know from our own experiences as well as academic research that our behavior toward others has a great deal of impact on how well things go socially. This is what I talk to my kids about, much like many other parents do. When we include digital social experiences in those conversations, “Internet safety” will be the rule more and more.

How can parents, educators and law enforcement guide and support teens to safer and more entertaining use of social media?

Adults, don’t take things you see online at face value. You’ll be seen by young people as smarter about their social media use than if you do. When they respect us, we obviously have more credibility when we’re offering guidance. We’ll also be more helpful to them when they’re having tough experiences in social media.

Take the time to understand the context of social media conversations. When adults see young people’s online interactions, they’re almost always seeing them out of context. Where young people are concerned, the context of comments, questions, answers, photos and videos we see is usually the relationships and interactions of their school life, not a Web site or app. We can’t really understand that context without talking with the people involved and need to get a handle on the intent behind what we see before we react. Sadly, children have been victimized and re-victimized by adults reacting to online speech and behavior without understanding what was going on among the young people involved.