On Friday Ofcom published their Media Literacy Audit on UK children's media literacy (thanks to Jackie Marsh for the link). As I was reading the Executive Summary, one paragraph in the section on content creation and online social network sites caught my attention:
Among many [young] social networking site users there is a lack of awareness of, or concern about, potential safety and security risks. Many feel that they are immune to any potential risks, and that even if they were to have problems, they would be able to deal with them.
It's worth just picking that apart briefly:
1) The first part, "a lack of awareness of, or concern about, potential safety and security risks", is something we can address. The architecture of sites, the information made available to young people and informal learning opportunities can help young people to become aware of possible pitfalls and dangers in the use of social network sites.
That said, amongst young people there is a lack of awareness, or concern about, many potential risks. To know whether there is a clear case for increasing young people's awareness of risk we need:
a) to know if young people are comparatively less aware of risks on social network sites as opposed to risks of equal severity in the offline world (e.g. risk of becoming a victim or crime, risk of sexual abuse by a known adult).
b) to decide whether the risks to young people are severe enough to prioritise making young people acutely aware of them.
In the same way that internet filters are often guilty of 'overblocking' (filtering out good content along with the bad) – awareness of potential risk is 'overblocking' – it creates a fear of caution that not only prevents individuals engaging in risky behaviors, but it also has a tendency to make individuals cautious and risk-averse in their take up of potentially very beneficial opportunities.
2) "Many feel that they are immune to any potential risks,". Put simply: don't all teenagers believe they are invulnerable? By way of a more sustained argument – adolescence is a time of risk-taking in which young people's brain chemistry is geared towards feelings of invulnerability. We should take this aspect of youth as more or less a given, rather than a problem that needs to be 'solved' through information and awareness campaigns.
3) Young people believe that "even if they were to have problems, they would be able to deal with them." From the way this sentence is phrased, I take it that the authors consider this to be a concern.
It's not obvious, however, that a large number young people believing they can deal with the problems they encounter should be of concern. Again – we need to know a lot more to make a sensible policy decision. In particular, we need to know whether those young people who believe they would be able to deal with problems actually could.
If is exactly an increase in the number of young people who believe they would be able to deal with problems (and actually would) that we need. Increases in young people's resiliency and ability to address negative outcomes of risky behaviors as early as possible should be our core positive indicator in looking at online safety.
It is worth noting that we can't accurately test how many young people actually could deal with 'problems' online by asking them about their responses to a theoretical question and comparing this to adult ideas of 'best practice' in such cases. Young people's coping strategies may be adopted on creative patens that adults would not necessarily recognize as sensible responses to a given problem. That adults do not immediately recognize them as sensible or effective does not immediately mean that they are not.
Ofcom's paper is research report – and does not make policy recommendations. However, the research often reflects and directs policy concerns – and I hope in the above I've managed to at least point to a number of potentially problematic assumptions or implicit beliefs that are often active in the direction of policy responses to youth and social network sites.