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FOSI Talks Research, Online Safety and Overwhelmed Parents

The Family Online Safety Institute, an international nonprofit focused on online safety and healthy technology use for kids and families, aims to meet the moment with research and information for educators, families, elected officials and corporate leaders.

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Cybersecurity and online safety being top priorities for schools across the board, there are no shortages of school districts and companies making efforts to protect campuses, nor of questions from teachers and families about protecting kids in their increasingly digital environment. An international nonprofit has been taking a multilayered approach to those questions for the past 15 years, and lately it's finding a growing need for its services.

Founded in 2007 by current CEO Stephen Balkam, the Washington, D.C.-based Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) operates within three pillars: policy, practice and parenting. The latter is focused on families, entailing a Good Digital Parenting initiative, which provides open-source information for kids and their families. The information comes from what FOSI learns through annual conventions and research reports, as well as talking directly with parents.

“We hear a lot that parents are very overwhelmed,” FOSI Program Director Emily Mulder told Government Technology. “So we've tried to take some of the baselines for establishing what a healthy approach to tech use can look like at home and give that to parents in a way that they can also customize and find a way to make it fit for their families, since every family is different.”

While Mulder said that FOSI does not work directly with school districts, she said the initiative and its resources are applicable in a school setting. She said the materials take a "standard approach" to educating students about proper tech use that covers cyber bullying, screen time and social media, as well as mental health. FOSI also has a blog within the parenting initiative where experts — many of them educators — write articles about their areas of expertise, including how to apply the information in a classroom.

Mulder said FOSI works with ed tech companies, conferring with them on what constitutes age-appropriate content so schools can make informed decisions about what technology to use and how parental controls at home mesh with devices that are part of the classroom.

“Trying to create some guidance for both parents and teachers about how that can be transparent or how that can work at home has been important,” she said.

Policy is a major pillar within the organization. As a nonprofit, FOSI doesn’t lobby for policy changes. Instead, they aim to enlighten lawmakers through their research.

“We try to educate and inform policymakers, go up to the hill and offer briefings for different offices that have shown interest in child safety and its many various forms,” Mulder said. “And [we] encourage a balanced and informed approach to any sort of regulatory efforts.”

Beyond policy, Mulder said that the institute’s “practice” pillar focuses on convening its roughly 30 members. Among them are major tech companies Google, Microsoft and Apple; social media companies such as Twitter and TikTok; telecom companies such as T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T; and other high-profile companies, including Disney, Nintendo and Netflix. During these annual conferences, members discuss best practices and safety, Mulder said.

“We try to act as sort of a neutral convener for all the companies … and be a place where they can come and talk about what's working for them, what isn't, what the challenges are and be the conduit through which they can talk,” she said. “Even if it's amongst competitors.”

Mulder said that in previous years of the organization’s annual conference, leading government officials from the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, as well as top lawmakers and corporate executives, took part as speakers to find solutions and innovations that create progress. Overall, she said that FOSI takes the role of being a balanced voice, avoiding the creation of policy based on knee-jerk reactions to trending topics.

For the past 10 years, the organization has released an annual report that covers whatever challenge is at the forefront of online safety for kids that year and shared responsibilities to ensure safety, she said.

“Parents, teachers, tech companies, government — how are we splitting up the responsibility for keeping kids safe?” Mulder said. “We definitely look at all of those reports as a contribution over the last 10 years, hopefully moving the needle on a few of those topics.”

Mulder said lately the focus has been on media and digital literacy, with misinformation swirling about recent election cycles and the COVID-19 pandemic. She said FOSI hosted a miniseries of webinars and promoted them for parents and kids, ultra-focused on topics like how to better think critically about the content they are seeing and where it originated from, as well as role-modeling for parents and adult figures.

“There was a big influx for us in requests for just general parenting guidance, like … how to teach them about privacy settings and how to handle video chat applications,” Mulder said. “Are they safe? Are they private? … So [we are] really just trying to enforce in a very tough time what a healthy tech balance can look like.”
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.