Hundreds of programs are being developed to promote safe and responsible online behavior among youth. They are being successfully marketed and eagerly adopted because of their appealing content, exciting graphics, engaging games, catchy phrases and cool characters. But that is not enough. The bottom line for everyone to remember -- funders, program developers, communities, schools, and families -- is that these programs need to actually work. They need to change youth attitudes and inspire youth to make smart and ethical choices about how they behave online. If programs are not doing this, then no matter how beautiful the graphics or sophisticated the video production, time and money are being wasted. Children are not safer and parents and teachers may wrongly conclude that they have successfully addressed the problems.
Unfortunately, right now, we have no information that Internet safety programs work. Or which ones are most likely to work. We see parents and schools excited about the material. We hear stories about kids who did something important after seeing a program. But prevention and education experts know that “feelings” and stories can be very misleading. We’ve made such mistakes before—particularly in trying to prevent youth drug and alcohol abuse. There are striking parallels in our eagerness to educate youth about Internet safety and the rushed and ultimately disastrous efforts to prevent drug problems in the 1970s and 80s (see Box 1). It is critical that we avoid making the same mistakes.
Rigorous, scientific evaluation is necessary to tell us what works. And it is crucial to have this information before programs are disseminated widely. Those unfamiliar with program evaluation might be unsure about why it is so necessary or worry that it will stifle innovation. There can be confusion about how to organize an evaluation. Evaluation can be expensive and it does take time to complete. But lower costs and speedy dissemination are questionable benefits when there is no evidence whatsoever that a program is helping youth.
With this paper, we hope to inspire the Internet safety field to make evaluation an integral part of program development, and consumers to insist on information about effectiveness. We make a case for evaluation, try to de-mystify the process, respond to common concerns or questions about evaluation, and propose some steps to ensure that our programs help youth stay safe online.
Crimes against Children Research Center
Jones, L. and Finkelhor, D. (2011) Increasing Youth Safety and Responsible Behavior Online: Putting in place programs that work. Washington, DC: Family Online Safety Institute.