U B SAFE - A Hypothetical Resource for College Internet Denizens

As the parent of three teenagers (my oldest is now 20, but my youngest is 14) I have learned how terribly frustrating it can be to harp on something, maybe for years, and be ignored - and then find my child fully accepting of the same information or guidelines coming from someone else. But I finally did learn, and sometimes now I set up situations (very sneakily) where they hear stuff I want them to hear and accept and would say myself if I thought they'd listen, but they hear it from someone else.

With respect to a lot of the stuff we wish our student computer users on campus would listen to us about, or learn from us, there are a growing number of outside resources for younger people that higher education IT staff can modify or recreate and use in a similar way. The FBI's "A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety" is one; i-SAFE is another. I wish there were similar efforts aimed at the slightly older children we call young adults who populate our campuses. If there were, you could be sneaky and find a way for your student government to broadcast links to these to your student body. Or, I bet you could spend one staffer's time for a couple of days and figure out some viral marketing method to spread the word.

Last year, in The Feral User, I wrote: "We've almost got a Lord of the Flies situation with our freshman class and its cyberculture. They've grown up with access to IT and the Internet and have acculturated in a shadowy, underground cyberworld that is not under adult supervision. And most of them have been exposed to little or no "civilizing" processes with regard to their computer usage - until they come to campus.

I wasn't exactly focused on user safety in the personal sense so much as social safety from users, but I recently spoke to counselors at an institution that will remain nameless here, but which has a large, mostly male student population and is somewhat geographically isolated. I learned that a significant number of the younger college students there get tied up in online relationships that are troublesome, in that they cause problems both emotionally and academically for the students involved - and sometimes become a problem in the physical world as well. It makes me wish that there was a version of "A Parents Guide to Internet Safety" written for that population.

Recently, I've seen the products of some of the efforts to work with children and young adults and instill a sense of online social and personal responsibility. It's nice to see some decent resources become available but I'm not having much luck finding good resources for students already in college. Here's a little bit about the two best I've seen for younger kids.

From the FBI:

The FBI's "A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety" can't be described as tremendously exciting. It d'es contain a lot of good advice. College age students are likely to be turned off by its tone, though, as it's clearly parental in nature and aimed at parents of younger children. It couldn't hurt, though, if somehow the existence of this free online document became known to large numbers of your students. Whether they'd like to admit it or not, college age students are vulnerable to much of the same problems as younger students when it comes to meeting inappropriate people on line and possibly engaging in dangerous relationships with them.

Some students might see it as a modern version of Reefer Madness, in that some of the behaviors it alerts parents to watch out for seem to be fairly normal and frequent behaviors of most college students. And it lacks any real assistance for dealing with viruses, worms, and the like.

From i-SAFE:

As the intro to i-safe.org notes, "Today's children (read "young adults") are the first generation to grow up with the Internet as a staple of society. They travel through cyberspace frequently - often alone - and commonly are more computer-savvy than their parents." And i-SAFE recognizes and addresses more problems than the FBI document d'es. One really good thing that it d'es it that it puts some of its learning in the form of little fact quizzes that users can take:

True or False:
· One out of every 33 kids and teens who use chat rooms have been asked to take it a step farther and meet in real life?
· Many kids and teens have been tricked by Internet predators and lured out of their homes and away from safety?
· If you download copyrighted material such as music or movies and distribute those materials, you can get into big trouble with the law?
· Someone can steal your identity using just your name, birthday, and zip code?
· A virus, worm, or Trojan Horse can destroy your computer, and that many of these types of malicious code can be found and destroyed quickly and easily before they cause any harm?
· i-SAFE has created a fun and easy way to help you and your friends, parents, schools, and communities raise awareness of Internet safety?

i-Safe then notes that the answer to all of these questions is "True."
Obvious, yes, but put to users in a non-threatening, "fun" way. Having a quiz that is self- or automatically-graded and positive in tone is a good "sneaky" way of putting useful information into young heads.

D'es this work, regarding cyber safety? One school assessed its effectiveness and found that large majorities of students said they were more careful online afterwards and make better choices about what to download. Some even changed their online name to something less self descriptive or suggestive. And most were less likely to try to meet someone face to face that they had only met on line.

i-SAFE is really well done and parallels to it would probably work for older young people, too. Imagine a short video of J-lo saying, with a snide toss of her hair, that she'd "have to be an idiot to open an unexpected e-mail attachment." Yeah, it would work.

D'es such a thing exist about safe computing for young adults? If you know of a good one, please let me know - splendid@umich.edu. My guess is that it's too large a task for any one college or university to take on, but that many attempts are made at inventing this wheel and that there are some good, campus-based resources. I think it'd be nice if some of the appropriate IT and student services organizations got together and created an online tool that mimics i-SAFE, but for college students.

Note: After this article went "to press," I had a telephone conversation with i-SAFE and learned that, although it is not obvious on the i-SAFE website, they do consider university and college staff as collaborators within the i-SAFE community, have programs tailored to them, and welcome inquiries.

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