Being a responsible Internet user requires more than knowing the etiquette for social networking and the rules about revealing personal information online. Research indicates that really being safe online involves installing safety software and truly understanding the language of the privacy statements of the websites and software packages one uses. However, simply telling people how they can be safe is not enough. In their study on Internet safety, Robert LaRose, Nora J. Rifon, and Richard Enbody (2008)* evaluated online safety education efforts and found that more needs to be done to motivate Internet users to protect themselves. LaRose et al. suggest that websites could make users feel more responsible about being safe online by promoting user self-efficacy and improving maintenance features.
To determine and understand what motivates people to take appropriate steps toward being cautious online users, LaRose et al. reviewed and evaluated the safety education procedures of 11 online safety education websites. Fear was found to be the most common tactic used to encourage people to install the proper software and to read privacy statements. However, LaRose et al. found that while “[safety] messages arouse fears, [they] don’t offer a rational means for dealing with the fear, [and] people are likely to deny the danger exists” (p. 72). Denial is especially thought to be the response of “newbies,” (p. 72) or those who are new to using the Internet. It is important then for newbies and long-time Internet users to learn the positive outcomes associated with safe online behavior: eliminating malware, more efficient computer operation, reduced repairs, and increased productivity (p. 73). In addition to staying safe, such outcomes save people time and money. LaRose et al. also found that when people see themselves as technical leaders or view online safety as a personal responsibility, they are more inclined to continue protecting themselves online.
LaRose et al.’s findings are important for teachers to consider when introducing technology to students. Students are the newbies. From the beginning, students should become familiar with the privacy policies of popular websites and any software programs used in their classrooms. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to read updates and changes to these policies, as well know why they exist. LaRose et al. note that their study did not consider privacy as a variable relating to whether people would choose to be safer online. I view privacy as the most important factor to consider; because of how quickly information is accessed and passed around online, it is important that students recognize the dangers of it. If we encourage students to be safe on the Internet from the first time they use it, they will become self-sufficient users of the Internet who are confident in their ability to protect themselves.
According to LaRose et al., people are deterred from being safer online because of the burden of online maintenance (p. 75). They assume that people would rather resolve flaws in safety features after a problem occurs. To prevent delayed responses in repairing technical issues, LaRose et al. suggest that websites screen visitors with “‘i-safety IQ’ quizzes that would route them to appropriate content . . . [that] might encourage repeat visits to build self-efficacy . . . and walk[ing] them through [safety program] implementation would also help” (p. 76). I think these steps would be important in any classroom technology program for students. Online programs and software that schools use should include such quizzes to encourage students to actively think about the devices and programs they are using and the information they are viewing. LaRose et al. even suggest that people have “personal action plans” (p. 76) for dealing with online safety.
While I agree with the logic of LaRose et al.’s suggestions, I do think they could have paid more attention to why people do not take the time to read privacy policies. Of the reasons LaRose et al. list for people ignoring these messages (the time involved in regular maintenance, a unwillingness to deal with problems, or an “it won’t happen to me” attitude), they neglect to mention that most privacy policies are lengthy and hard to read. From the difficulty of the language often used to the style of font chosen, websites and software developers do not strive to make privacy policies an appealing read. Should schools opt for a rigorous Internet safety program, then the language of commonly used classroom websites and programs would have to drastically change in order to attract students’ attention. Overall, people would be more inclined to read privacy statements if the language and length were modified.
In closing, this study made me think about Internet safety in a different way. In schools, we are so focused on discouraging students from listing private information in their social networking profiles, cyberbulling, and just making sure that technology is there to appeal to students, that we forget about the fundamentals of Internet safety. As LaRose et al. point out, nurturing a technologically responsible person involves more than just telling people how to behave, showing them the positive outcomes of such behavior makes them more inclined to be careful. Also, like most things, our computers require care. If we do not make note of the proper safety features from the time we start using a computer and the Internet, we will be less inclined to do it as time goes on, and then we are forever neglecting the distribution of our privacy.
* LaRose, R., Rifon, N. J., & Enbody, R. (2008). Promoting personal responsibility for Internet safety. Communications of the ACM, 51(3). doi: 10.1145/1325555.1325569