Towards a Better Internet and a New Normal

Stephen Balkam
February 9, 2021

This year we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, an economic downturn and uncertainty about what the rest of 2021 will bring.  Parents are stressed.  Kids are restless.  And we are all looking for new strategies and tools to find balance, connect in meaningful ways, and keep our spirits up during various phases of lockdown.

It is with this unprecedented background, that today we mark Safer Internet Day, an annual, global celebration that began in Europe in 2004 and which has now spread to 170 countries, including the United States.  This day provides us all a moment to reflect on the state of the online world and how we are doing in response to the many and varied risks, harms as well as potential rewards that our digital lives bring.

In our recent research report, Tools for Today’s Digital Parents, we found fascinating differences between older and younger parents.  Amongst Baby Boomers, top concerns included outside threats and online predators.  Gen X parents reported that harmful content was their worst worry.  But it was Millennial parents who signaled that their biggest fear was that their children would experience bad behavior online or that their kids would be the perpetrator. 

When asked if parents had the most responsibility to keep their kids safe online, 57% of Boomer parents agreed, whereas 43% of Gen X parents said the same, while just 30% of Millennial parents felt they held the chief responsibility – instead stating that industry, government and schools should also share the burden of online safety. 

That is a dramatic shift across the generations and bears out our own concept of a Culture of Responsibility, in which government, law enforcement, the tech industry, parents, teachers and kids themselves have different but overlapping areas of responsibility for online safety.

What also became clear in our study is that there is a growing set of online safety tools that have been developed by apps and social media sites to be used by teens and young people rather than parental controls that are imposed from above.  Teens’ attitudes to these tools are nicely summed up by one of our respondents who said:

“When I think about 'online safety tools,' I think about personal safety and being smart.  However, when I think of 'parental controls', I think of strict, overbearing, and invasive.” – Brianna C., age 16

In other words, these tools that allow kids to block, report, silence or filter out what they don’t want to see or experience give young people agency over their online lives.  It provides them the means to recover from a bad experience and thus build a sense of resiliency. 

Parents, on the other hand, particularly of kids aged between 7 and 11, feel overwhelmed by the sheer range of devices, websites, apps and online games they are trying to understand and monitor.  While three quarters of parents give themselves high marks for the online safety discussions they have with their kids, two thirds of them feel unsatisfied with the tools they have to keep their kids safe online.  That’s a challenging indictment of the tech industry and a plea to ISPs, social media platforms, game makers and apps to make their parental controls easier to find and easier to use.

In the meantime, the vexed issue of screen time has been eclipsed by the challenges of Covid-19 and the need for kids to be online for school, to socialize, and to just chill out while stuck at home.  Parents report that they have relaxed their views on screen time and are more likely to make the distinction between screen time and screen use.  A ten-year-old spending an hour on her tablet speaking to her grandmother is vastly different to spending the same time mindlessly scrolling through unboxing videos.  

One silver lining to the pandemic is the increased freedom kids are being given to explore on their own outside, without screens.  They are using their imaginations to overcome their boredom and build resilience without the overbearing presence of their parents and caregivers. 

So, while we reflect on where we are and the tough year we’ve all come through, let’s look with hope and optimism on 2021 and the coming years, as we gradually emerge from the hardships and restrictions of Covid-19.  Let’s bring our new understandings about remote learning and remote working to better equip our kids for the digital skills and knowledge they will need in their careers. 

As adults and parents, let’s model healthy online habits and resiliency for the young people in our care.  And let’s work together with our kids, not just for a better Internet, but for a more sane and balanced way of life, as we create a path to a new normal in a post-pandemic world.

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.