What Do We Mean by Online Safety?

For far too long, the debate about “online safety” has been preoccupied with fear. While we must continue to work together to find constructive solutions to the very real risks and harms that exist, we need to redouble our efforts to remind others that, on balance, there are good reasons to be optimistic and focus on the positive aspects of online life.

It was my great pleasure to participate in last week’s 8th annual Family Online Safety Institute conference. As a veteran of all eight annual conferences as well as a frequent participant in many other FOSI events through the years, I can say with great certainty that this year’s event was one of the very best.  This organization and the diverse community of individuals and institutions it has brought together have accomplished a remarkable amount of good in a very short period of time.

But formidable challenges remain. In fact, the theme of this year’s annual event, “Redefining Online Safety,” made it clear that, in many ways, our community is still struggling to figure out exactly what it is we are all trying to accomplish.

Toward that end, FOSI asked me to join forces with Kim Sanchez, one of the sharpest experts in this field, to moderate a breakout session to consider different conceptions of “online safety” and how we might define the term going forward. We were joined by dozens of leading experts in the field and asked them to help us come up with terms and phrases that could better frame future online safety discussions.

In his opening remarks at this year’s conference, Stephen Balkam noted that when FOSI was being formed, “the discussion around Internet safety centered around Porn, Predators, and Pedophiles,” or the so-called “3Ps” of the online safety debates.  In recent years, however, the conversation has evolved and moved away from those concerns, Balkam said. Today the concerns most often discussed in this field range from cyberbullying and sexting, to overuse and over-sharing, to loss of privacy and reputation, or even just constant distraction and loss of attention.  

In our breakout workshop, we asked the participants to toss our various words and phrases that they associate with “online safety.” Many of the concerns that Balkam raised were reiterated. But what was remarkable about our session is how clear it became that many experts in our field want to move away from “negative” conceptions of online safety and toward more “positive” conceptions of the term.

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