Safety in the internet age: From ‘acceptable’ to ‘responsible’ use

Issue: Volume 94, Number 12

Posted: 13 July 2015
Reference #: 1H9crV

In this, the second part of our series on the work of NetSafe, Neil Melhuish explains why knee-jerk reactions to digital safety don’t work.

Yik yak and other anonymous platforms

How our students use the internet is rapidly changing and the plethora of new social media platforms can naturally cause anxiety for parents and educators.

Where young people and their safety are concerned, all hearts are of course firmly in the right place. The urge to ‘block, ban and protect’ is understandable, but counter-productive, says NetSafe programme leader Neil Melhuish.

Neil and his team have recently been fielding quite a few calls on one particular online service causing concern, especially in schools: ‘Yik Yak’.

Based in the US, Yik Yak is just one of a new generation of messaging apps to elicit a fair bit of community panic in recent times. This is for one reason only: messagers can hide behind anonymity.

The reaction to this kind of perceived threat is so often exemplified by coverage like the recent Huffington Post blog headline – ‘Why your college campus should ban Yik Yak’, which goes on to criticise Yik Yak’s anonymous messaging boards as “like bathroom stalls without toilets. They’re useless, they’re sources of unhelpful or harmful conversations, and they’re a complete eyesore. So get rid of them.”

Behaviour, not technology

Yik Yak – and its contemporaries that seem to have faded from the front page, like et al – have undoubtedly provided a convenient forum for plenty of online abuse. But Neil says that pointing the finger at the technology or the services themselves misses the point: there’s nothing new under the sun.

“The key point to make is that these things are the same, but different. Anonymous platforms like Yik Yak just provide a new way to bully someone covertly.”

These new platforms are more sophisticated, more widespread and more accessible, says Neil. But to underline the point that bullying is about behaviour, not technology, he points to a very timely piece of research to come out of the United States recently, which looked at the relative impact of three modes of bullying.

“[The research looked at] cases of purely off-line bullying; purely online bullying; and cases of ‘hybrid’ bullying: sustained bullying involving both on and offline environments. The one which proved to be most traumatic for young people is, perhaps unsurprisingly, bullying that occurs both on and offline. There’s no respite – at home or at school – from hybrid bullying.

“Next was offline ‘physical’ bullying, if you like – by that we don’t at all necessarily mean one student hitting another, we just mean face to face confrontation.”

This may shed light on why online bullying can be so damaging. Bullying has more impact when it’s personal – when the victim is known to the antagonist, and is known to the audience – and the potential for lasting harm is amplified.

Balanced debate is important

Part of NetSafe’s business is to provide balance to the debate, says Neil. “We want to ensure that challenges are fully understood and not sensationalised. We want to maintain credibility with all audiences, and not be seen as crying wolf.”

“So – taking anonymous messaging platforms as our case in point – we’re trying to consistently bring the message to journalists: ‘it’s not about the technology, it’s about the behaviour’. ‘Yes’, we’re saying, ‘this is an issue, but let’s not vilify any one company or platform needlessly, when we should be focused on causes and effects’.

“Technology enables bullying and bullying can lead to tragic outcomes,” Neil says.

Protecting and guiding

It is important that we approach internet safety calmly, without a fear-based or technology-centric view. This is usually counterproductive, says Neil.

“Using the shock value of the most tragic cases simply doesn’t work with young people. I believe the main takeaway for schools and parents from this case is that we need to challenge our assumptions when it comes to young people’s use of technology.”

As covered in the first article in this series (Issue 94.10), NetSafe is part of a global network of organisations committed to understanding the dangers that come with the gifts inherent in the online environment.

“We’ve had a number of schools contact us about Yik Yak, and go away considerably less anxious about the whole thing. Blocking, defending, protecting: at the end of the day, it’s a ‘sieve-like’ solution; it’s like playing whack-a-mole. Singling out individual apps or sites and trying to block access to them is useless; the behaviour will simply crop up somewhere else,” he says.

“Protections such as blocking sites, content filtering or device curfews have a role, but do they provide a complete solution? No.

“For example, a school can block a website on its network that is still available to students on their own devices using mobile or Wi-Fi connections. But we are even starting to see apps that are harnessing mesh networking technology so no internet connection is required to connect to social media.”

Neil says his own children are of primary school age, and he wants them to be able to talk to him about the challenges they experience online.

“At the same time, of course, there’s a strong pull to impose limitations on where and when they can use their devices. A school experiences the same tension, and we all have to work hard to find the right balance of promotion and protection.”

As parents and educators, we need to be informed about the technology available, and how it is being used by our young people. We need to understand that it’s not possible to be safe all the time. We need to balance ‘protecting’ young people with ‘guiding’ them as they grow and develop, and make their own life choices.

Future-proofing our young people

Supporting children and young people to develop digital citizenship skills is important at all ages.

So states the introductory text to the NetSafe Kit, a tool for schools that helps them work through the issues, and come up with effective strategies involving the whole community.

In recent times many schools, having spoken with NetSafe, have decided not to pursue a ban of platforms such as Yik Yak, but to work on strengthening their educational approach.

“Until everyone understands that we’re in the business of future-proofing our young people, of equipping them to navigate their own lives, that might raise a few eyebrows,” says Neil.

A good starting point is to think about user agreements, or acceptable use policies. Typically, whether it’s at work or school, technology users are asked to read and sign a document that essentially covers the workplace or school from any responsibility should anyone do anything deemed digitally inappropriate.

At their worst, such agreements can simply be form-filling exercises, devoid of meaning. They are filed and kept in case something goes wrong later. NetSafe encourages schools to engage their students in the development of these agreements to make them as relevant as possible to students.

Ideally they are treated as live documents that are revisited during the school year, as the use of ICT in the classroom changes.

A pact of good faith between all concerned should still be a starting point, says Neil, and he believes the active and ongoing use of such an agreement provides a powerful example of how we should shift our focus from enforcing ‘acceptable use’ to fostering ‘responsible use’ of technology for learning.

Therefore, digital citizenship becomes an active and ongoing process.

“The first step – and lots of schools have taken this on board – is to get the kids involved in designing the document,” says Neil. “By doing this, the students have a role in it, as opposed to simply handing out something that is dripping with legal speak and asking students to put their name to it. We’d like schools to view the agreement as something that’s in constant evolution, just like the internet itself.

“Let’s say that a school sets up a community blog for the first time. We don’t believe it’s good enough to simply continue to consider themselves ‘covered’, given that the use of technology at that school has evolved since the agreement was first signed at the beginning of the year.

“Revisiting the agreement document when things change means also that everyone has a bit of a think about potential implications: does the agreement need updating?

“Digital citizenship needs to be integrated, just as technology is integrated into so many aspects of our lives in 2015. It’s something that needs to be woven through all aspects of the curriculum.”

The NetSafe Kit

The NetSafe Kit for Schools has been helping schools to build safer technological environments since its first iteration in 2001.

With rapid changes in the technology used in schools and the ICT landscape around all of us, the concept of online safety has also fundamentally changed.

Just as the way digital technologies are used in education changes, so too does the best approach to online safety. Ideas of protecting people from online ‘dangers’ no longer work. Now there is an emphasis on promoting safe and responsible behaviours and how to manage the inevitable challenges online. The focus has to be on increasing learner preparedness, whilst over time reducing external protections.

This model for online safety focuses on building the skills and knowledge that enable students to become effective digital citizens.

The current version of the NetSafe Kit for Schools ( presents a seven-step process for building an environment that promotes and enhances online safety through digital citizenship. Within each of the seven steps, there is advice around practices and procedures that relate to learning, guidance and protection.

The steps are:

  • Identify your starting point
  • Build a secure foundation
  • Build capacity
  • Actively involve the whole school community
  • Focus on classroom programmes
  • Share and foster discussion
  • Think strategically and long term.

NetSafe is an independent non-profit organisation promoting confident, safe and responsible use of online technologies. The Ministry of Education has a key partnership with NetSafe, recognising that when dealing with a medium that seems to change on a daily basis, the experts need to be closely involved.

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 7:08 pm, 13 July 2015

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