The problem with teaching internet safety

Internet-Safety-for-ChildrenFacebook is funding another new internet safety programme in UK schools. What are the limitations of such programmes, and why do we need an alternative approach?


Earlier this week, Facebook announced that it would be making a million pound grant to a programme designed to tackle cyberbullying in UK schools. The strategy will involve a peer-to-peer approach, in which schools will appoint an individual student who will be trained as their ‘digital safety ambassador’. A million pounds sounds like a lot of money, although it won’t go very far once it’s spread across 4,500 secondary schools.

Facebook has come in for a good deal of bad press recently, and one might be forgiven for asking why it is offering a few peanuts from its massive corporate profits (perhaps it might be better if they were to just pay their taxes…). As I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog, such companies have a lot to lose if they recognize they are accountable for the content that is published on their platforms: making users responsible for their own safety is a smart commercial strategy.

Of course, cyberbullying is an important issue – assuming, that is, we can agree on what counts as ‘bullying’ in the first place. Unfortunately, this is no straightforward matter. Evidence suggests that young people find ‘cyberbullying’ difficult to define, and don’t necessarily find the term helpful. The boundary between ‘bullying’ and ‘banter’, or being ‘picked on’, is far from clear. Most agree that internet companies are providing inadequate support when it comes to reporting and preventing such behaviour, and that the available guidelines are far from helpful.

4227192-xsmallHowever, an approach that sees the problem simply in terms of risk and safety is bound to be very limited. Cyberbullying isn’t an isolated phenomenon, or a matter of occasional deviant behaviour. On the contrary, it’s part of a continuum. We can only really understand it if we see it in the wider context of how we behave both online and offline – how we present ourselves, how we construct our identities, and how we establish and maintain relationships much more broadly. And these are issues that self-evidently apply to adults just as much they do as to children and young people.

To date, most proposals – and the large bulk of the funding – for education about social media have come from the internet risk industry. Much of this work focuses on warning children to avoid various forms of bad behaviour, and (to a lesser extent) on giving them psychological counseling when things go wrong. In the early days of the internet, the emphasis was almost exclusively on paedophiles and pornography, although in recent years the focus has extended to aspects of ‘mental health’ – the topic of my previous post. While some of this material is useful, much of it trades in alarmism and paranoia. Indeed, some of the melodramatic imagery makes anti-drug campaigns look positively mild and restrained.


There are self-evident problems with these approaches. Like the rest of us, young people quickly get tired of endless warnings about what they shouldn’t be doing online. In some cases, these warnings are bound to have a ‘forbidden fruit’ effect, sending us in search of things that might seem excitingly risky. Yet how far any of us is actually able to heed these warnings in the complicated and messy interactions of everyday life is quite debatable. For example, how many adults take the proper steps to protect their private data, even though we have been told many times about them? How many different passwords do you have?

However, my main concern is that these approaches define the issues in such narrow terms. Much public discussion about internet safety veers erratically between two polarized positions. On the one hand, we have the alarmist view of the internet as a repository for paedos and porn, along with hate speech and terrorist propaganda and evil commercial messages and the rest. Yet on the other we are told that, of course, we mustn’t forget the massive benefits the internet offers for young people. The problem then becomes one of balancing out harm and benefit – or taking the benefits without exposing ourselves to the harms.


The problem here – and it’s amply demonstrated in the large-scale surveys that Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues have been conducting for many years – is that risks and benefits are inter-related. Those who are most avid users of online media (and hence most likely to reap its benefits) are also those who are most likely to be at risk. The awareness of risk does not necessarily translate into the avoidance of harm: we may know in principle what we should do to be safe, but what we do in practice is another matter.

Furthermore, framing the issue in terms of risk inevitably pathologizes individuals who are (for example) deemed to be ‘sensation-seekers’ or ‘excessive users’ or merely ‘vulnerable’. The binary of harm-and-benefit seems to assume that both these things can easily be defined and separated. In reality, this is far from being the case: risk can be pleasurable, and most benefits have a cost of some kind. And of course, it’s possible that for most people, most of the time, their use of these media doesn’t easily fit into either of these categories.


The business model of companies like Facebook depends upon embedding these media deep within the interpersonal dynamics of people’s peer groups. This is essentially how social media make money: the more we engage with each other, the more we like and friend and follow and comment, the more data we provide, the more we are exposed to advertising, and the more money the companies make. Facebook and others are explicitly and implicitly encouraging us to do this all the time. The more controversial their customers are, the more both adults and children choose to bully and troll and harass each other on their platforms, the more profit they generate.

Like a good deal of social life offline, our interaction online is all about the formation of in-groups and out-groups, about establishing hierarchies within groups, about promoting oneself and putting one’s best selfie-face forward… All of this is probably more intensified online – not least because some of it is anonymous, and the potential audience is much larger – but the key difference is that all of it is now being monetized. To separate out something we choose to call ‘cyberbullying’ – or indeed, to worry about young people presenting themselves in inappropriately ‘sexualized’ ways online – is to remove these problematic behaviours from the everyday social contexts in which they occur, and from this wider economic context.

So what’s my alternative? Predictably enough, I think young people (and all of us) need a much more comprehensive understanding of media. ‘Digital media literacy’ – if we can still use this term – isn’t just a matter of using technology safely and efficiently. It involves critically understanding how these media work.

One absolutely basic starting point here is to recognize that Facebook and other social media are not just technological services or platforms, but media. Like other media, they enable us to create meaning and pleasure, and to represent the world in particular ways; they target and engage users through a variety of means, and they make large amounts of money in doing so. The fact that most of the content they publish is generated by users, rather than by people directly employed by the companies, is certainly worthy of analysis, but it doesn’t mean these issues are no longer relevant.

As I hope to show in future posts, we can use the established conceptual framework of media education to help us make sense of this. We may need to shift our emphasis somewhat, from objects (that is, media ‘texts’) to processes (or media practices). But we need to do more than hold up our hands in wonder at the marvellous creative benefits of technology, as some propose.


As David Finkelhor has argued, the digital environment is no more dangerous, and in some respects less dangerous, than other offline environments that young people inhabit. The problems that social media pose are not unique, but rather extensions of problems that cut across many social settings. As he suggests, the appropriate responses should not be specialized internet safety training but more generic education about life skills, social interaction and media literacy. In a social media age, social education needs to encompass media education; but media education should also address issues that have in the past been confined to social education.

For better and worse, social life is now much more intensively mediated than it was even ten years ago. Phenomena like cyberbullying are an inevitable part of this, and they need to be taken seriously. Education has a key role in preparing young people for this mediated world, but it needs to do much more than simply warn them about its dangers. Teaching about online safety is obviously necessary, as long as it’s done well, but it is only a very small part of a much bigger process.