Online predation and cyberbullying

This was originally published as a news item in July 2006, but I think the principles still apply.

Well, the US House of Representatives has ratified the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), which was originally passed in May, and which bans access by minors to any website which involves creating a profile.

In other words, the Act is so broadly crafted as to, in effect, ban almost any useful website, blog, or collaborative  learning and social web spaces from schools. So how's that as a way of dealing with online predator issues?

There's no point in rehearsing all the arguments here, but one thing I would say is that we in the UK need to watch developments closely. It has long been the case that what America does today, the UK does tomorrow. "Tomorrow" used to be around 20 years' time, but these days the time lag is much shorter. Moreover, it used to be the case that this process happened naturally. Unfortunately, the "special relationship" now seems to entail us constantly looking at what the Americans are doing in education in order to see if we could adopt it here.

I don't wish to come across as xenophobic against the USA -- I have friends, family and colleagues there, and I travel there at every available opportunity -- but I do think we need to be somewhat more discriminating than we sometimes are in adopting American ideas. I am concerned that some bright spark in the DfES, fresh out of university (Oxbridge, of course), with no clue as to how the real world works, will decide that banning everything that might attract perverts is a great idea.

In fact, this head-burying approach could, if anything, lead to more and worse cases of online predation, if it leads schools into a false sense of security and makes them pay even less attention to these issues than they do now. Specifically, I am referring to the responsibility of children themselves, and parents. I am constantly amazed that, despite everything you hear, every so often another teenaged girl goes missing after meeting a man 3 times her age whom she met on the internet.

In the long term, the only real defence against online predation in my opinion is to make it compulsory for schools to address online safety issues in the following ways:

  • Teach students how to be safe online, but not as part of technology lessons, but as part of the general citizenship or student welfare curriculum.
  • Appoint child safety officers and make online safety issues their responsibility, rather than the responsibility of the Technology Co-ordinator.
  • Issue guidance to parents: after all, if your child locks himself in their room for 8 hours every day, shouldn't you be wondering what they're doing? And how come the computer is in their room anyway, as opposed to the family lounge?
  • Make classes available to parents on how to deal with these issues, both in terms of what they say and do, and understanding the technology, their ineptitude in which is usually offered by way of an excuse for allowing their kids to completely fool them. I'm sorry, but I don't go for all this digital natives and immigrants stuff when it comes to this: I don't know anything about the internal combustion engine, but I know it's pretty dangerous to wander about on the road, so I've learnt to handle myself safely when I need to get from one side of the road to the other.

Actually, the same goes for teachers: if you're not a technology co-ordinator, that does not mean you are not responsible for observing what the students coin your class are up to.

(You would not believe the number of times I have to say to school administrators, "That is a child protection issue, not an educational technology issue.")

In fact, there is probably a case for arguing that, had the US House of Representatives had more confidence in schools' parents' and students' ability and willingness to address online safety issues in practical ways, perhaps they would not have felt the need to pass this legislation.

Further information.

On this subject, the Department for Education & Skills in England has just issued guidance about cyberbullying. You can find that here:

It also includes a couple of videos. The "don't suffer in silence" video is quite powerful in its own way, but both it and the other one, which is basically a poem, needs to form part of a controlled discussion activity to be truly effective.

Recent research in the UK suggests that over 20% of children have experienced cyberbullying. Now, this is interesting:

"Phone calls, text messaging and emailing were the most common forms of cyber bullying both inside and outside of school, while chat-room bullying was the least common. The prevalence of cyber bullying was greater outside school than in school."

If that is also true in the USA, then DOPA is doubly dangerous because it will make people think these issues have been dealt with when they have been hardly touched. A bit like arresting the wrong person for a series of murders, leaving everyone in the area with a false sense of security because the actual murderer is still on the loose.

I haven't yet read the report in its entirety, but from what I've seen it is worth looking at and discussing with colleagues.

See here for the full report:

and here for the summary: