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Online Safety Tied to Real World Behavior

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I've been working in the field of Internet safety for 17 years, and the deeper I get into it, the more I realize that Internet safety for kids and teens isn't about the Internet or really even about safety.

"Internet safety" is mostly about behavior in the blended world where kids live on and offline. How they treat themselves and others has a big impact on whether their experiences will be good or bad.  And it's true for adults as well.

While there are unique aspects to protecting yourself online, many of the major online risk factors -- especially for children -- have their offline equivalents.

Cyberbullying is the most obvious example. To be sure, technology can change the way people bully, but bullying is still bullying. Whether it happens through text messages, on Facebook, in a chat room or in the schoolyard, it still involves repeated harassment and typically an imbalance of power between the victim and the bully.

Cyberbullying does have unique aspects, though -- the bully can be invisible and actions can quickly go viral, involving lots of people "piling on" a single victim. And when the victims and bullies don't know each other from the real world, there is an increased danger that the bully won't be able to understand the emotional harm inflicted on the victim, possibly causing more harm than intended.

Still, there is a major connection between physical and virtual bullying.

In an email interview, Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center said that in a recent study of 4,400 11-to 18-year-olds, the researchers "found that 65 percent of students who reported being the target of cyberbullying in the previous 30 days were also the target of school bullying during that same time."

The research also found that "almost half of cyberbullies were school bullies as well. There clearly is a lot of overlap in bullying behaviors."

The online-offline overlap can be found with other risks.

Studies from the Crimes Against Children Research Center have repeatedly found that children who are sexually abused by people they encounter online are statistically far more likely to be taking offline risks.

Disinhibition is when people feel isolated from one another because of an artificial barrier, such as meeting online rather than in person. It's not uncommon for people to feel as if those they meet on the Internet aren't real people, so it's "OK" to be rude or abusive.

Disinhibition plays a major role in Internet behavior but also has a offline component. You're likely to say "excuse me" if you get in somebody's way while walking down the street and all will be forgiven. However, cut someone off in traffic and you're likely to get a couple of rude words and gestures.

Other factors that have been identified by researcher danah boyd (she prefers not to capitalize her name) are persistence and searchability (the Internet is a permanent and searchable archive), replicability (you can copy and paste text easily), scalability (high potential for visibility well beyond the audience you intended), invisible audiences (you never really know who's seeing, reading or watching what you post, and the blurring of public and private materials (an extension of invisible audiences because boundaries aren't clear.)

Resources:

Time to take the 'cyber' out of cyberbulling by Larry Magid

Online Safety 3.0 by ConnectSafely.org

Cyberbullying: What I've learned so far by Anne Collier

SafeKids.com

ConnectSafely.org

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