And four other things i’ve learned to talking to over a thousand kids about online safety.

Online safety is not something I ever set out to do. But it is something that frequently gets me very, very mad. Fear mongering, scare tactics and a yellow-tinged snow-balling avalanche of negativity seems to be what passes for “internet education for young people” nowadays. What’s worse, it seems intended to scare young people (and more importantly, their parents) away from using the internet.

This is not only the wrong approach, it’s a dangerous one.

For the last two months I’ve been running a new kind of “cyber-safety” workshop all across Victoria. I’ve spoken to thousands of students, parents and teachers all who’ve grown accustomed to the standard serves of scare-inducing-fare. My goal was to present a holistic perspective of the internet, one that presented not only the negatives, but also the positives.

We wanted to strip away the liberally applied red tape and teach kids to navigate for themselves. Moreover, we wanted to teach parents and teachers how they could support young people in doing so.

I’ve learned a great deal in the process, but here are five key things that I think everyone should know.

1. For the love of god, stop using the word “cyber” as a prefix.

The word Cyber was coined by a mathematician named Norbert Wiener in the 1940’s. Back then it was a niche word, used only in the context of cybernetics. The term wasn’t actually popularised until 1966. And just how did that happen?

 The cybermen

Doctor Who.

I’m not even kidding. It was the goddamn Cybermen. And not the new, mildly quirky, passing-for-a-sex-symbol David Tennant, Matt Smith Dr Who. I’m talking about the old Dr Who. The show that nerds would pay out other nerds for watching.

The word “cyber” has never even entered into the vocabulary of an average young person. In fact, the only context in which cyber even factors as a blip on their radar is in the context what decedents of the 1960’s now refer to as “Cyber-safety”.

This is a problem. Not just because we’re using a foreign terminology to communicate with the people we’re trying to educate. It’s a problem because the people we’re trying to educate typically know far more about the online space than the people who are lecturing to them about it’s risks. Young people have a far greater sense of ownership of this space than adults do, yet they’re constantly being told “you’re doing it wrong”.

It’s essentially the equivalent of the first fleet arriving on the doorstep of the aboriginals, and telling them that their way of life is silly. Then proceeding to invoke rules and regulations. It’s just not palatable. From the perspective of effective communication, it’s just lazy.

Remember, the cardinal rule of all communication:

First seek to understand, then to be understood.

2. A little authenticity will get you miles.

The funny thing about authentic communication is that it needs to come from a place of authenticity. People who have not grown up with the internet, or worse, do not use the internet will have a hard time finding the all important common ground.

This is not to say they can’t do it. It’s just much harder.

If you can share a few quirky personal stories, show a few battle scars and above all, demonstrate that you’ve been there, you’re going be building a far stronger bridge than simply bellowing commandments from on high and expecting them to be adopted without question.

If you didn’t grow up with the internet, i’d suggest that the questions you ask to a young person are far more important than the lectures you give.

3. Saying “No/ Don’t” is counterproductive.

Young people will weigh the risks for themselves.

Different aspects of the internet present different risks and different values. The risks that a young person decided to take is entirely the business of that young person. And yes, naturally there is both risk and value. The responsibility of an educator is to illustrate both.

Working to dictate a persons’ decision making by saying no, don’t and never is far more likely to have an opposite-than-intended effect, Dipping the subject in a delicious layer of the forbidden fruit factor.

Different people weigh risks differently. Everyone makes mistakes, but these mistakes are a learning experience.

4. The risks that young people face as a result of using of social media are nothing compared to what’s going to hit their blissfully ignorant parents and teachers.

When a wave of change strikes, the worst approach we can possibly take is to simply shut our eyes, cover our ears and wait for everything to blow over.

Scribes tried it with the invention of the printing press. Mathematicians tried it with the invention of the calculator. Innovation hunts inertia and it kills it dead.

The popularisation of the internet is shaking up industries left right and centre. Airbnb is disrupting hotels. Uber is disrupting the taxi industry, giffgaff telecommunications. The list does, and will continue to stretch on.

To those that understand the principles by which the internet operates, go the spoils.

Make no mistake, there’s a left hook coming straight at the faces of these people. It may strike at different times, and it the crack may be felt in different ways, be it within their personal lives or professionally. One thing is for sure, a lack of understanding of the internet is going to cause pain.

5. The way we talk about “sexting” is dead wrong.

I’m going to put it out there. Sexting is not an inherently bad thing. In fact, it should be a really good thing.

Sexual development is an incredibly important aspect of a young person’s life. The ability to be able to experiment with their own sexuality in a “soft context” is enormously beneficial. It’s an avenue that i believe that any young person should absolutely be entitled to explore.

Yet we discuss sexting as if it’s a catastrophic mistake that will inevitably ruin a persons life. We say that we need to teach resilience to young people, to “resist the urge” and to simply abstain from sexual activity, because that’s clearly worked so well in the past.

Young people have it drilled in to them that to send a sexually explicit message to another person is the equivalent of sudden-reputational-death. Then in the rare instance in which something does go wrong, we attack the victim. Almost always the girl.

Well, what was she thinking? What was she expecting?

Really? Are we actually asking what runs through a persons mind before they embark in some manner of sexual activity. The answers to both of those questions should be obvious:

1. How attracted she was to her partner.

2. That she could trust him not to be a dickhead.

It doesn’t take a genius to actually rhetorically answer both of these questions and see that the glaringly obvious problem is not the victim. It’s the person who decided to violate their trust.

Sexting as a means of sexual exploration should be a far safer form of sexual development than meeting up in person, making like Nike and just doing it. It’s a way to put your toe in the water, without jumping in. It’s an opportunity to establish a strong line of communication with a potential partner and it’s a way of exploring what you’re into before taking the plunge.

Yes, there are obviously risks, but those risks are being exacerbated by a totally misguided victim-driven focus on the issue.

Don’t blame the victim, blame the culprit. Imagine a world in which the image that spreads is not that of a young person in a compromising position, but simply one that circulates the identity of the person that chose to violated their trust, the consequence shifts in a beautifully appropriate way, no?

My advice to kids who want to sext? There is great power in the armed standoff.

If he’s got your boobs, make sure you’ve got his balls first.


– Matt