[Summary: Practical questions to use in e-safety education when working with social media and social networking sites]
Later this month the House of Lords will be spending two and a half hours discussing young people and social networking sites in a debate initiated by Lord Toby Harris. As Shane McCracken has pointed out, a focus on “the adequacy of safeguards to protect [young people’s] privacy and interests” risks as debate leading towards legislation to restrict and control how social network sites function or young people’s use of them. However, even if Shane’s more hopefuly scenario of “increased awareness about the need to educate young people and parents about internet privacy issues” results, we could still end up heading in the wrong direction.
Far too often e-safety education places it’s focus on communicating ‘safety messages’ which are either counter-intuitive to the active social network using young person (‘don’t share any personal information online’) or which end over-detailed, complex or in contradiction with the way social network sites operate (‘use a nick name’ – ‘but it asks for a real name’). Plus, being aware of a safety message and putting its content into practice are two very different things.
In a project I’ve been working on for the Brent Local Safeguarding Children Board E-Safety Subcommittee we’ve tried to explore how, instead of a focus on safety messages, we can use critical questions* to structure education about safe use of social media, whilst promoting the opportunities that new technologies offer at the same time. Using a critical questions approach can enable professionals to facilitate young people’s own exploration of safe and effective uses of new media, without the professional needed to be a new-media expert.
Here’s the current working draft of our question-bank:
All these questions were designed be asked in the context of some form of purpose driven online-communication – such as using a blog, social network or social messaging tool to run a campaign on a local issue. The questions are divided into six sections.
1) Think about: the idea
- What are you trying to communicate?
2) Think about: intended audience
- Who are you doing it for?
- Who might also be interested in what you have created/posted/shared?
- How long do you want it to be available online for?
- Do you want to allow others to copy and remix it? Or should it be covered by copyright?
3) Think about: the impact of the information or media you are sharing
- What difference do you want it to make?
- What other impact could it have?
- Could anyone get upset because of it?
- What good things could happen because it it? What bad things could happen?
4) Think about: identity
Thinking about how you have/will share this information or media:
- Is it/will it be linked to personal information about you? Who can see that information?
- Do you just have one identity online, or are you a different person in different spaces?
5) Think about: interaction
Thinking about information or media that you have shared:
- Who are you connecting with through it? Do you know them? Is it ok if you don’t know them?
- Can people leave comments and feedback on it?
- How would you respond to a comment from someone you don’t know?
- How would you respond to a comment that said something hurtful or aggressive to you, or to a friend?
6) Think about: each other
- What would you do if a friend shared a photo or video of you online that you didn’t want shared?
- What would you do if you had shared a photo of someone and they asked you to delete it?
- What would you do if someone you know was spending all their time talking to someone online who they have never met?
- What would you do if you were worried about your friends being bullied?
Using critical questions
Whilst these questions don’t give explicit safety messages – in encouraging young people to develop their own understand and literacy with digital tools they are designed to act as a vehicle for exploring safety messages. In Brent I’m hoping that, with continued development, they will form the backbone of a programme encouraging young people to develop their digital literacy whilst creating and sharing online content about their local area.
However, I believe that moving from a ‘safety messages’ to a ‘critical questions’ and a ‘literacy building’ frame of engagement with social networking and social media also has other implications:
- It encourages pro-active engagement with online social networking by informal education specialists – seeking out opportunities to use new technologies and to support young people to understand them;
- It suggests that instead of placing restrictions on young people’s access to social network sites, or seeking to control the activities young people can engage in on social network sites, we should look to the design of online social networking environments to ensure that they encourage their users to consider, rather than ignore, key critical questions about what will happen to information and media they share. Whilst it may take government pressure before the big networks build safety and ethics into the core of their designs, we can explore creative ways to inject critical literacy building features in social networking platforms already.
Some questions for you
I’ve not yet had chance to pilot and evaluate the critical questions framework in depth – and I’m keen to make sure it continues to develop to be as useful as possible in ensuring young people take up online opportunities in safe and effective ways. I would really value feedback from anyone working on e-safety:
- In your experience, how well equipped are the young people you work with to respond to these sorts of critical questions about their online activity?
- Are there other key questions you would add to get young people to consider issues not raised above?
- How would these questions work with different age groups? In our experience is there an age range for whom safety messages, rather than critical literacy building, is the only option?
*Critical questions – as in ‘constructive criticism’ or ‘questions that make you think and re-evaluate activity or behaviour’.