Last year, on the second Tuesday of February, about 300 high school and middle school students from across the Bay Area gathered at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View to celebrate Safer Internet Day. That night, families came to TikTok’s Bay Area office to learn how seniors, parents, teens
and even very young internet users could take advantage of connected technology while protecting their safety, privacy and security, maintain a tech-life balance and learn media literacy skills to know the difference between truth and online lies. These events were sponsored by my non-profit, ConnectSafely, in partnership with the National PTA and teen leaders from My Digital Tat2. We have also held events in Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and other cities, with speakers including our now Vice President Kamala Harris and other senior local, state and national officials, senior tech executives and — most important — young internet users.
A global event
Safer Internet Day is a global awareness-raising campaign that started in Europe in 2004 and is now celebrated in more than 100 countries. Globally, it’s coordinated by the Brussels-based Insafe/INHOPE Network, with the support of the European Commission. ConnectSafely has been the official U.S. host since 2013 after being approved by the European Commission, which acted on an official endorsement from Bay Area Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and cooperation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Because of the pandemic, there will be no in-person events this year, but we have taken Safer Internet Day online so that everyone in any part of the country can join in.
Online resources and videos
As CEO of the organization, I pushed staff to organize a live virtual event, but I was talked out of it by the parents and educators I work with who argued that schools — along with students and parents — have too much on their plate to squeeze in yet another live Zoom event. So, instead, we built an asynchronous program consisting of home activities, lesson-plans for school and videos that can be accessed anytime at SID-USA.org, beginning Feb. 8 — the day before Safer Internet Day. The videos are with a talented group of people from the worlds of education, technology, nonprofits and law enforcement about a range of urgent issues, including online toxicity, racial justice, free speech, misinformation, the very real pressure to be “perfect” and how to manage screen time while staying connected during the pandemic.
Internet starts with ‘I’ — What can you do?
This year’s U.S. Safer Internet Day theme is “The Internet Starts with I and ends with T.” And T stands for together. We’re asking everyone to think about “What I can do to make the internet better.” The “T” reminds us that we’re all in this together. That includes families, individuals, companies, governments, and everyone else. We all have a role to play.
I know this sounds like a slogan, but — as someone who’s been working in internet safety for nearly three decades, I can assure you that we really all do have a role to play. For example, if you see someone being mean to others, don’t pile on but do what you can to interrupt it or, at least, support the person being cyberbullied. If you are engaged in a spirited debate on social media, do express your opinions, but keep it civil. And if you see something online that you think may not be true, don’t share it unless you’ve verified that it’s accurate. Even if you can’t keep others from spreading fake news, you can make sure that you’re not part of the problem.
There are plenty of other things you can do to make the internet not only safer but better.
If you’re a teen or a tech-savvy adult, you can reach out to an older person or anyone else who may be struggling with technology. Even if you can’t help them in person, you might be able to do so by phone or video — perhaps using screen sharing to get a better sense of their issue or show them what they can do.
If you’re a parent, you can think about what help your kids need. They may not need technical help, but they might need advice on how to know what’s real and what’s fake, and in some cases, they might benefit from a bit more parental involvement in making sure they’re using their devices safely. There are many tools out there to help parents better limit and monitor their kids’ use of technology, including free ones built into phone and computer operating systems. If you’re tempted to give your child a smartphone, you can add a parental control app or if it’s an Android, use Google’s FamilyLink so that helps parents remotely guide and approve their young children’s smartphone use. And, parents, Safer Internet Day is a great time to have a conversation (not a lecture) with your kids where you can learn from one another. You’ll find conversation starters for families and lesson plans for schools at SID-USA.org/lesson-plans.
There are also things that companies — tech or otherwise — can do, including providing education to their employees and customers. Safer Internet Day is a great time to publish a blog post or otherwise help educate people about what your business is doing and what your people can do to help make the internet better.
Pandemic and post-election make Safer Internet Day especially timely.
This is an especially important year to think about how we use connected technology. Concepts such as “screen time” have to be re-evaluated because, for many, screens are the only way to socialize, hang out with distant family and even go to work and school. There are also some added vulnerabilities in scammers and fraudsters taking advantage of the pandemic to spread false information and victimize people. All those video meetings bring up some important privacy and safety concerns. And, regardless of how you voted in November, I’m sure you agree that this is a tumultuous time for our country. Misinformation and divisiveness have affected us all, and much of that is happening online. And even when nothing is going wrong, the mere quantity of online meetings is having an impact. Now, more than ever, we need to focus not just on safety but also on wellness. We all need to take deep breaths, find time to relax and learn when to step away from our devices.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.