Monday, December 21, 2009

tales from the e-safety conferences

It's in the air; it's in the news. If there's been a 2009 buzzword for me, it's been e-safety, to the tune of two conferences, a consultation event, and multiple smaller exchanges both online and in the real world.

But, I must confess, the entire concept irritates me. A bit like being told by a policeman that I shouldn't walk the streets at night, on my own, I feel annoyed and disenfranchised by the e-safety barriers, the nannyware and the shock-and-scare ads about the scary people on the other end of the IM chat-line. I feel like my entire online experience is being knocked out of joint for the sake of a few nasty individuals and/or accidents.

That said, bad things do happen online. I can pull out ten or twelve scary stories, but you'll probably have heard all of them already. Many make the news. People end up distressed, abused, dead. But all of these things can and do happen without the mediation of computers.

So instead of the bad stories, let's have a few good ones I've heard at these conferences:

"The internet has been an absolute godsend. She goes to a special school, and all her friends are scattered all over the county, plus, with her disabilities it's a major campaign to get out and about. But she can go on the computer and chat to her friends after school, she doesn't even need to hold a phone to her ear (which is difficult for her) she can just wear the headset. She's just so much more connected than she would have been."

"My daughter and her friend were on [a popular networking site] and someone started making friends with them and trying to get them to meet up. They thought this was a bit weird and called me over. I learnt over the screen and told them what to ask and he was obviously some creep. He disappeared right away once they started asking searching questions and then we blocked and banned him."

"My son has a bit of a problem with using [a popular social networking site] after he's supposed to have gone to bed. So my mum -- his gran -- logs on and tells him to go to sleep! I was worried he'd be embarrassed by me turning up online, although I made friends with him of course. But it's important to allow them their space."

The notes below were from an e-safety conference notable for having a dearth of positive stories in the presentations. Even the story where a bunch of young teenage girls had spotted a slightly creepy presenece hanging around their social networks, taken their concerns to an adult, had the police act on these concerns, and the individual had been stopped before anything untoward had happened, had been presented as negative and scary.

At this event, as at others, I ended up sat with a few people quietly sharing positive stories of long-distance friendships, homework help, games, good times and online romance. We hear too much about the bad things, and any sharing of the goodthings is greeted by an instant barrage of yeah-buts. Don't believe me? When I mentioned homework help above, did you not instantly think of plagiarism?

It's difficult to use any tool well if you're afraid of it. Empower people to be happy, confident users and the vulnerabilities that let in the scammers, abusers and other losers close and heal.