It’s Safer Internet Day: Should We Be Worried?

Stephen Balkam
February 11, 2020

Today is Safer Internet Day 2020. Should this be a cause for celebration or concern? Do the benefits of being online for us and our children outweigh the risks and potential harms? And what are we likely to encounter, and our kids to have to deal with, in this new decade?

Let’s begin with the challenges. The pace of technological change continues to accelerate. We are confronted with a dizzying array of new phones, tablets, gaming consoles and other connected devices. We are at the dawning of the Internet of Everything, where everyday objects - doorbells, thermometers, vacuum cleaners and even our kids’ toys - are now infused with AI and creating a footprint on the web. As many as 6,000 new apps are uploaded everyday worldwide. How are we possibly going to keep up?

Well, it would help if we keep in mind the difference between risks, harms and rewards. Simply by going online, we and our children risk being exposed to inappropriate content, unwanted contact and the hurtful ways that others may conduct themselves online. One way to be risk-free is to simply disconnect, get rid of the devices and revert to an analogue way of life. But we won’t reap the rewards, and there are many, if we don’t take risks. Calculated risks. Risks that can still be safeguarded against by incorporating technical tools, household rules and basic educational lessons that are taught in schools and online.

As users, we must become familiar with the ways in which we can block unwanted material and report it when needed. As parents, we have a duty to educate and familiarize ourselves with the apps and games our kids use. We must convey our values by setting boundaries that are both reasonable, and include young people’s input and buy-in.

Importantly, we must face the challenges head on by acknowledging that there are times when risky behavior or unfiltered browsing can lead to real harm. We know that abusive and violent, sexual images can have a profound negative impact on young people’s emotional well-being. Compulsive game playing or excessive screen use can lead to physical and psychological problems that can require tough interventions. At-risk kids can be lured into believing that their online “friend” really does care about them and so wants to meet up in person to carry on their “relationship”.

If we are able to keep the risks to a minimum and intervene when actual harms take place, we can fully realize the remarkable rewards that digital technology has to offer us and our children. Just ask a kid about their favorite app, game, or website and be prepared for a lengthy and enthusiastic response. Use this as a tool to connect with them and celebrate how they’re taking advantage of technology with positivity. Remember, for most young people there is no longer any distinction between “online” and “offline”. Digital technology is simply braided into their daily lives.

Our job as adults, teachers, and parents is to be good digital role models ourselves. To demonstrate civil behavior when commenting, posting or reacting to online posts. To show how we can put our phones down when it’s time for a conversation or dinner or bed. To control our own fears and react constructively when our kids show us something that disturbed or upset them online. We need to calmly show them how to report or block or avoid bad behavior or unsuitable content when they encounter it on social media. Above all, we must help them build a sense of resilience – a way to quickly recover from a harmful experience and to give them agency to do something about it.

The theme of this year’s Safer Internet Day is, “Together For a Better Internet”. While governments, industry, law enforcement, parents and teachers all have their role to play, let’s focus on creating resilience in our children so that they can better make the wise choices online that will allow them to grow, and thrive.

Now that would be something worth celebrating.

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.