Trust and Civility In Our Challenging Times

Stephen Balkam
November 16, 2017

Ten years ago, we launched the Family Online Safety Institute at a time of extraordinary change and innovation. 2007 was such a remarkable year, that Tom Friedman wrote a book called, “Thank You For Being Late”, based on what happened during those twelve momentous months:

IBM began building Watson, the super computer that is now a Jeopardy champion. Amazon’s Kindle was released. Google’s Android was unveiled paving the way for a new generation of phones. Airbnb opened its doors. Facebook & Twitter really took off. And, of course, it was the year that Steve Jobs launched the iPhone, setting the stage for the explosive growth of apps.

Fast forward ten years and we find ourselves at an extraordinary inflexion point. As the impact of digital technology grows, so does our work in the field of online safety. We talk about acknowledging the risks, mitigating the harms, while reaping the rewards of our, and our children’s lives.

Technology has had a profound impact on the way we treat one another; on the way we bring up our children and even on the way we think and feel about ourselves. And, of course, on our political discourse and the democratic process, itself.

We have witnessed countless examples over the past year or so of ways that trust in institutions, in organizations and even in each other has been eroded. And we have watched how basic civility has been challenged by trolling, online harassment, bullying behavior and worse.

Technology both reflects and accelerates the changes we are going through in our communities, in our nation and in the world. These are difficult times. Not helped when some of our political leaders model the very behavior we teach our children to avoid.

But these challenging times are also an opportunity. An opportunity for us adults, parents, teachers, industry leaders and even politicians to go back to basics: What do we stand for? What are our core values? What do we want our legacy to be – both on and offline? For me, it comes down to trust and civility.

To trust is to believe in the reliability, truth or ability of someone or something. Trust can mean confidence, faith, certainty and conviction. As in, “Good relationships are built on trust.”

So we ask ourselves, “Do I trust this person, this website, this post, tweet or photo?” Can I trust this institution, school or organization? What do I think when someone in power says, “I’ve got the answer. Trust me.”?

How do we guide our children and students who and what to trust online? What are the media literacy skills needed in these difficult times? How can we raise awareness and teach discernment without conveying fear or, worse, cynicism to our kids and young people?

Part of the answer may lie in what we think of as basic civility. My Oxford English Dictionary tells me the word derives from the Latin, “civilis” or the state of being a citizen or orderly behavior. In the 16th Century, the sense of politeness and courtesy arose as another layer of meaning of the word. Other words that come to mind include: respect, graciousness and consideration.

We need to create reasonable public policy decisions, robust industry best practices and evidence-based educational campaigns to counter the disruptive and damaging behaviors that we and our kids increasingly witness.

While we need to respond to the rise of fake news, the blight of hate speech and the scourge of cyber bullying and harassment, we must also model civil behavior. To promote and highlight the best of ourselves in order to create safe and trusted spaces for others, especially for our children.

We must do onto others online, as we would want others to do onto us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the rest. The Golden Rule is just that: golden. It applies online and off. In real life and in Second Life.

Don’t just think before you post. Feel it, too. Develop your empathic skills. How will this other person receive what I’m about to upload? What impact will I have with my words, photos, videos, shares and tweets?

It may mean that we will have to slow down our responses. To take an extra moment to check in with your head and your heart. Is what I am about to post true, as far as I can tell? Does this feel right? Is it golden? If so, send. If not, delete.

Many top athletes describe what they do in the heat of competition. The slow the game down. Even though a ball may be hurtling towards them at 96 MPH, they find a way to block out the noise and gain an extra half second, to check their swing or to power through.

I think we could all do with slowing our game down online. To pause, take a breath and to be more mindful before we hit Reply. We urgently need to develop new online norms and behaviors. Thoughtful tweeting, conscious posting and empathic responses are just the beginning.

By modeling these thoughtful behaviors for each other and our kids, we can rebuild trust, safety, security and civility in these fractured and divisive times.

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.