June is Internet Safety Month. Buckle Up.

May 31, 2024

These past few months have been a wild ride when it comes to new technologies, online safety regulations and failed attempts at passing laws at the US federal level. There have been best selling books and international research projects that point in opposite directions.  And we’ve seen the unveiling of Chat GPT 4o, Google’s new AI offerings and Apple is due to drop their latest genAI magic in the coming days.

It’s enough to make a parent’s head swirl.  Should I read Jonathon Haidt’s book, “The Anxious Generation” and keep my kids away from phones and social media?  Or should I be consoled by the latest research that shows that access to the Internet is actually linked to higher wellbeing?  Should I applaud the regulations coming out of the UK and Europe, but worry about the unintended consequences of laws like KOSA in the US? 

Given the complexities of modern life and the exponential change of new technologies, it is not hard to see why parents and caregivers want to seek a simple solution to the vexed question of how much technology to give their kids and at what age.  Haidt’s book has tapped into a (mostly wealthy Western) zeitgeist and the simplicity of his “solutions” are matched by the broad brush by which he paints an entire generation.

Leaving aside the argument that he confuses correlation with causation, by simply declaring that no one under the age of 16 should be allowed on social media, he creates a feel-good cure-all that doesn’t address younger teens’ own rights to access and create content themselves. 

Greta Thunberg began her environmental advocacy at age 15 and used social media to spread the word about her protests.  Malala Yousafzai started blogging at age 11 about life under the Taliban.  Malala went on to utilize a wide range of digital technologies to get her message across and eventually went on to address the United Nations at 16 and to win the Nobel Peace Prize at 17.  I doubt either Greta or Malala would have achieved anything like the global impact they have had if they were denied access to social media until they reached 16.  

As a counterpoint to the media blitz that Haidt has created, the Oxford Internet Institute released a study that has confounded many of those who would prefer to ban and bar kids from their phones and social media apps. It also took a much broader look across 168 countries including Latin America, Africa and Asia and found that “84.9% of associations between internet connectivity and wellbeing were positive and statistically significant”.  While they found areas of concern, particularly among teenage girls, the OII findings and others like them need to be considered in our Global North rush to confiscate devices and restrict access among young people.  

We need to consider a paradigm shift in our thinking about online safety as a child matures.  No one would advocate giving a 5-year-old unfettered access to the web.  It is essential that parents and caregivers are given the tools and the information about how best to filter and restrict the online access of their toddlers and elementary aged children.  Once kids reach middle school, the training wheels begin to come off and by high school, the emphasis should go from monitoring to mentoring. At this point in a child’s life, it is time for helicopter parents to become co-pilots with their kids and to set up household rules with their teens' active participation and input.

And, technologically speaking, the emphasis goes from parental controls to online safety tools - the latter being the ways in which teens and young people block, report, silence or make private their own social media posts.  From our own studies, teens have a very low opinion of parental controls but enthusiastically embrace online safety tools that have been made with them in mind.  

In other words, as a child grows and matures, we move from protection to empowerment - giving our young people the ability to access content, gather online and to create their own expressions of themselves.  Much like Greta and Malala did.  

So this Internet Safety Month, let’s be good digital role models for our kids and resist the temptation to find some quick fix to impose on a generation that is much more than just anxious. 

Written by

Stephen Balkam

For the past 30 years, Stephen Balkam has had a wide range of leadership roles in the nonprofit sector in 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.