THE BLOG

Every Day Should Be 'Safer Internet Day'

02/11/2015 07:31 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

"90% of young adults are using social media sites (#holycow)."

That's what California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo said in her video address to the audience gathered at Facebook's headquarters for this week's "Safer Internet Day." Safer Internet Day is a global event organized by the organization Insafe to promote the safer and more responsible use of online technologies and mobile phones, especially amongst children and young people.

I spent Safer Internet Day talking technology with parents in Southern California, at a school where I teach digital media literacy to their kids. For these parents (who, like all parents, are on the front lines of Internet safety and kids), every day is Safer Internet Day and, frankly, they could use some help from the industry and safety insiders who were gathered in Silicon Valley.

"Creating a better Internet together" was the theme of this year's international event, and as Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) put it, "The word 'together' is the key. It's a word we hear very often. But in reality, in the online world global collaboration is not so easily implemented."

I thought about this as I watched the live stream of the event just after talking to the front line, battle-weary parents. Three clear themes screaming for collaboration between industry reps, Internet safety experts, and parents emerged. Let's call them the "Three "E's":

1. Empathy: In her opening address, Keynote Speaker: California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris set the tone, speaking eloquently about the importance of creating an online culture that "supports the most vulnerable" and where kids have each other's backs. In the session that followed, "Beyond Bullying: Dealing with Trolling & Social Cruelty," panelists grappled with this topic, with one of the student panelists (kudos to the organizers for including young people in the conversation) saying that "teenagers act different online." In the online environment you "take the empathy out," she said, and kids don't get "to see emotions."

Technology's impact on empathy and emotions was big concern for the parents I spoke to as well. They worry that time with tech, especially spent when children are young, will affect their social skills, and recent research seems to support their fears. A UCLA study conducted last year found that just five days of no media use improved 6th graders comprehension of nonverbal emotional cues, and just last weekend researchers from Boston University warned that using a tablet or smartphone to divert a child's attention could be detrimental to "their social-emotional development."

Social-emotional development is a big deal when it comes to how kids interact with others online. As Parenting Expert Annie Fox said, it's not just part of the plate, "it's the whole plate."

We (parents, policy makers, industry leaders, etc.) all want kids to have each other's backs. But they have to want to have each other's backs, right? We can't legislate that, can we?

2. Engagement: It takes a village to raise an iChild and parents "need to be on the front lines" and engaged in the online world. This was the sentiment heard again and again at the Safer Internet Day event. Additionally, as Cindy Southworth of the National Network to End Domestic Violence reminded the audience, parents need to self-reflective of their own tech use. Our kids are watching.

But unfortunately, "parents find the online world overwhelming," said National PTA President Otha Thornton.

That's what I heard from the parents I spoke with too, and this overwhelming fear can have a paralyzing effect, causing some to simply throw up their hands and give up entirely at a time when kids need us most. As Thornton put it, the online world "shouldn't be feared, it should be embraced."

So there's got to be a way we can all work together to do a better job helping parents to start embracing and engaging.

3. Education: Which brings us to this most important "E."

Zahra Billoo, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the audience, "Today if you get into a fight on the schoolyard or you don't realize the effects of cyberbullying, you could go to jail. We've got to teach kids about the consequences of their actions online."

She's right. Just because kids are supposedly "digital natives," doesn't mean they come innately equipped with the skill of knowing the consequences of their online actions, good or bad. So I like Annie Fox's suggestion that we "vaccinate kids before they play on the Internet." Let's actually give them the 21st Century skills we keep talking about.

So move over A, B, C's. Make room for the three E's.