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Hundreds of high school students, parents, and policy makers gathered together at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters this week to trade suggestions for making the internet a safer place for young people.
The Safer Internet Day 2015 conference kicked off with a keynote speech by California Attorney General Kamala Harris about a recent “revenge porn” case prosecuted by her department. She said it’s not just the goverment’s job, but everyone’s job, to “protect and support the vulnerable.” Discussions about online harassment and cruelty, and how to help curate a better space on the internet, took up much of the next few hours.
As someone who was invited by ConnectSafely.org to be on one of the day’s panels, what seemed most interesting to me was this: young people who are on the internet are thinking a lot harder about this issue then anyone is giving them credit for. These are daunting problems that don’t have perfect solutions, but here are some of the best ideas I heard over the course of the day:
Digital media literacy should be taught as a basic skill in K-12 education. With students spending more and more time in front of screens, if people really want to stop the seemingly endless avalanche of cyber bullying, educators will have to step up and start teaching people about conflict resolution on and offline. During the day’s first panel, addressing online bullying, an audience member related a personal story about his child’s safety being threatened by schoolmates both on and offline. He told panelists that the school did not take action against the perpetrators. But as my colleague pointed out, in some cases of online bullying, the perpetrators have themselves been bullied in the past. “What are the resources for those people?,” she asked. This is why we need pre-emptive education for young people about how to use the Internet and how they can create positive online environments for themselves.
Tech as a tool, without connotations of “good” or “bad.” Several high school students commented that online anonymity seems to contribute to harmful internet culture. One young woman suggested that anonymous survey apps like ask.fm encourage negative online behaviors. Panelist Jamia Wilson, Executive Director of Women, Action, and the Media, said that young people concerned about these issues should contact developers and demand that they create or curate safer online environments. Other panelists and audience members commented that the Internet just a tool, and that what’s important is training people to use that tool in ways that don’t harm other people.
Using the Internet to change narratives. Over the last five years, we’ve seen global and domestic social movements gain major traction by advocating for themselves on social media. People are using the Internet and social media to bring focus to issues that weren’t prominently represented in mainstream and legacy media before, from well-known movements like the Arab Spring and #blacklivesmatter, to smaller campaigns like #iftheygunnedmedown and #chapelhillshooting. Panelist Zahra Billoo of the Council on American Islamic Relations recalled her time as an activist pre-internet, and how groups like hers basically had to beg legacy media to tell their story. Now, she reminded the audience, people can use their own social media presence to humanize their struggle and present a full picture of their community and culture.
The day was capped off by representatives from tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Instagram who are working on trust and safety issues on their platforms. For them to make those platforms as safe as possible, they emphasized, they need this audience to continue giving them ideas like the ones they’d been sharing all day.
And the idea that got the most applause of the day? That came from Erik Martin, a student and consultant to the U.S. Department of Education. He proposed that all standardized tests …should be administered inside a video game.