Creating a Culture of Responsibility Online

Stephen Balkam
October 15, 2018

What does it mean to be responsible online? How do we counter what feels like a culture of irresponsibility and hate-fueled online behavior? Who and what will it take to turn this around?

In normal times, we in the US might look to our political leaders to use their bully pulpit and agenda-setting leadership to define and exemplify a needed cultural shift.

But these are not normal times. Partisan rancor and ideological tweetstorms have become the norm in these contentious times. However, there are some notable exceptions of recent government leadership trying to pursue a more positive and healthy Internet. The proposed CAMRA bill would provide much-needed government-funded research into the impact of digital media on children as well as young people’s social and emotional development.

In Australia, the office of the eSafety Commissioner provides an excellent example of reasonable and evidence-based government oversight and support. Britain has a ministerial-led Council on Internet Safety that brings together several leaders from government departments along with industry and NGOs to define the problems and seek collaborative solutions.

Where else can we look? The tech industry does not feel like a natural candidate to help promote responsible online behavior right now. From data breaches to Cambridge Analytica, Russian interference in U.S elections and tracking technology, tech firms have rightly been heavily criticized for being part of the problem, not the solution.

And yet, there are hopeful signs of tech companies taking steps to try to solve these problems. Twitter has not only created new conduct rules, but their CEO, Jack Dorsey, has put his personal stamp on what he calls the “health” of the platform. Facebook has vastly increased its moderation operation and is iterating daily on its policies on hateful, violent and racist behaviors. Google has stepped up with its Family Link service, encouraging “healthy digital habits,” and Verizon’s new Smart Family app takes parental controls to a new level with intuitive settings and a “Pause the Internet” button.

Even Apple has bowed to public and investor pressure by releasing “Screen Time” in an attempt to give its users a sense of control and personal responsibility for how we use our time online.

And what about parents? There is increasing awareness about the need to set limits, use parental controls, and agree with kids on basic rules. Efforts like our own Good Digital Parenting initiative show promising signs that parents can be reached with timely, easy-to-understand messaging that they can use. Being a good digital role model and curbing their own use or misuse of technology is, perhaps, the single most important way to convey to kids what it means to be a responsible digital citizen.

Let’s not forget grandparents, who are increasingly called upon to provide child care for their grandkids. We must make sure we get seniors online safety resources so that they can become an additional partner to help children learn about online safety.

And, finally, the kids themselves are increasingly taking it upon themselves to set new norms, to tackle bullying behavior online and to accentuate the positive. Some shining examples include Trisha Prabhu, a teenage innovator, entrepreneur and creator of ReThink who is showing the way both through her example and her anti-bullying app, how young people are taking responsibility for their actions. The work of Microsoft’s teen Council for Digital Good is a remarkable collaboration between a tech firm and a group of inspiring young people to create policies and programs that shift the conversation and promote real change in behavior online.

We will need well-resourced law enforcement to deal with the most egregious actors. Better trained teachers with evidence-based curricula to foster good digital behaviors amongst their students. Robust industry tools and policies to provide the means to spread digital civility. And greater efforts will be required to empower parents to help shape their children’s ability to grow, prosper and act responsibly in the digital world.

It’s going to take more than a village to create a culture of online responsibility. This is both a local and a profoundly global task. While we can encourage our political leaders to positively impact the problems of cyberbullying, sextortion, overuse and oversharing, it is more likely that it will be grassroots movements that will have the greatest impact on this vital cultural change.

Stephen Balkam is the Founder & CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute whose 12th Annual Conference will be held on November 15 at the U.S. Institute of Peace


Written by

Stephen Balkam

For the past 30 years, Stephen Balkam has had a wide range of leadership roles in the nonprofit sector in the both the US and UK. He is currently the Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an international, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC. FOSI’s mission is to make the online world safer for kids and their families. FOSI convenes the top thinkers and practitioners in government, industry and the nonprofit sectors to collaborate and innovate and to create a “culture of responsibility” in the online world.

Prior to FOSI, Stephen was the Founder and CEO of the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) and led a team which developed the world’s leading content labeling system on the web. While with ICRA, Stephen served on the US Child Online Protection Commission (COPA) in 2000 and was named one of the Top 50 UK Movers and Shakers, Internet Magazine, 2001.

In 1994, Stephen was named the first Executive Director of the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) which created a unique self-labeling system for computer games and then, in 1996, Stephen launched RSACi – a forerunner to the ICRA website labeling system. For his efforts in online safety, Stephen was given the 1998 Carl Bertelsmann Prize in Gutersloh, Germany, for innovation and responsibility in the Information Society and was invited to the first and subsequent White House Internet Summits during the Clinton Administration.

Stephen’s other positions include the Executive Director of the National Stepfamily Association (UK); General Secretary of the Islington Voluntary Action Council; Executive Director of Camden Community Transport as well as management positions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London) and Inter-Action. Stephen’s first job was with Burroughs Machines (now Unisys) and he had a spell working for West Nally Ltd – a sports sponsorship PR company.

Stephen received a BA, magna cum laude, in Psychology from University College, Cardiff, Wales in 1977. A native of Washington, DC, Stephen spent many years in the UK and is now has dual citizenship. He writes regularly for the Huffington Post, appears often on TV and has appeared on nationally syndicated TV and radio programs such as MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC and has been interviewed by leading newspapers such as the Washington Post, New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, radio and in the mainstream press. He has given presentations and spoken in 15 countries on 4 continents.