February 4, 2022

by Larry Magid
This article first appeared in the Mercury News

In 2004, the EU SafeBorders project and the European Commission established Safer Internet Day to focus on how to stay safe and secure online. Since then it has expanded to nearly 200 countries and territories, including the United States, where it has been hosted by my non-profit, ConnectSafely, since 2014.

Most years, we host an in-person event on the second Tuesday of February. This year that’s February 8th. In 2020, it was at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View and attended by a few hundred Bay Area middle and high school students. But the pandemic has forced us to move it online and, this year, we’ve expanded it to Safer Internet Week, with programs aimed at schools and families, including a live event on Sunday evening February 6 at 7:00 p.m. at SID-USA.org.

SID-USA.org is also home to the rest of this year’s program, which consists of videos that families and schools can watch anytime starting now. If you click on Programs from the navigation menu, you’ll be able to select School Programs or Parent and Family Programs. Each program consists of a 10-15 minute video from an independent expert and from senior executives at Amazon Kids, Discord, Instagram, Meta, Microsoft, Roblox, Snapchat, TikTok and Trend Micro.

Experts include Marc Brackett, head of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence; youth advocate Rosalind Wiseman, who wrote the book that the movie Mean Girls was based on; Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Sameer Hinduja; International Bullying Association President and hate speech expert Beth Yohe; virtual reality/metaverse expert and human rights advocate Brittan Heller; News Literacy Project Education Director Shaelynn Farnsworth; pediatrician and Director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Digital Wellness Lab Dr. Michael Rich; youth activist & entrepreneur Trisha Prabhu; and social justice influencer Dani Coke.

Safety advice

In his video interview, Cyberbullying Research Center’s Sameer Hinduja said that they’ve seen “a bit of an uptake” in cyberbullying. Dr. Michael Rich said “We have yet to learn how to behave on social media in ways that are consistent with our health. Social media isn’t hurting us. It’s basically neutral. It’s what we do with social media that either helps or harms us.” He added that authenticity — being yourself, “warts and all” — is far more satisfying than trying to project some kind of image.

Virtual reality expert Brittan Heller explained why the metaverse will require even more safety precautions than social media. “An immersive experience is predicated on presence, and presence means that your brain interprets like you are actually there. So virtual reality and actual reality are interpreted by your mind as the same thing.” And that could explain why Nina Jane Patel, who blogged that she was “virtually gang raped” by a group of male avatars in a live VR session, called it a “horrible experience,” a “nightmare.”

Focus on Well-Being

Digital well-being is a timely theme, especially in light of the pandemic, school closures and the isolation that many of us — young and old — have experienced for the past two years. After years of progress, we’ve seen recent increases in cyberbullying, online toxicity, depression and other harms associated with online experiences. Some of that may be because we are spending more time online, but there are other factors, which we explore in this year’s videos.

Some other factors include issues raised by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who leaked internal Facebook research, including an admission by a Facebook employee that, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls” and “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.”

I wasn’t shocked by this revelation because I’ve long known that it’s easy to be sad when you see someone who looks prettier, richer, happier or more successful than you. That could be true if you encounter that person on Instagram, in school, at work or at your local coffee shop. It affects adults as well as children. People rarely want to see a “bad” picture of themselves on social media, but they are likely to share pictures of great vacations or of their shiny new car. Young people are constantly coming across images of “peers” who look like supermodels — and they pretty much are. What the viewer might not know is how that person is using wardrobe, makeup, lighting and, in some cases, plastic surgery to look a lot better than they normally do.

Online toxicity

Another issue we deal with is online toxicity and false information. Our conversation with Shaelynn Farnsworth of the News Literacy Project outlines the difference between accidental misinformation and deliberate disinformation, as well as how you can tell legitimate news sources from bogus ones. She also explains how to respond to someone you know who is spreading false information.

Confrontation is not the best approach.

“There are multiple steps one can take when showing up without starting a showdown,” she says. “Be civil, empathetic, respectful, especially when it comes to vaccine hesitancy.” It’s good advice, though I admit my first instinct is often not to be quite so kind around those who are spreading lies. But, as she put it, “It might be tempting to do a knee-jerk response, but slow down, do your homework, have credible sources that they can investigate on their own and dispute those claims. Find a common ground.”

Supporters: The US Safer Internet Day program is supported by Amazon Kids, Comcast, Discord, Google, Meta, Meet Group, Microsoft, Roblox, Snapchat, TikTok, Trend Micro, Twitch and Twitter.