As a cyclist, I found myself fascinated by yesterday’s New York Times piece about helmet use, and as I bicycled this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder about the implications of this piece for the way we think about safety and protective-ness in other domain, such as online engagement for our kids.

Regular readers here are well aware of my enthusiasm for online participation, but those of us who are enthusiasts and advocates often encounter hesitation or anxiety: is it safe?   Aren’t we exposing our students to too much risk?

Yes it is, and no we are not.   This article about helmets uncovers interesting arguments that we can use to by analogy to the question of online safety.

A few caveats right at the start: as a school-leader I always insisted and would continue to insist that students wear helmets when cycling, and I don’t intend to argue for any extreme position here about risk-taking.  It is balance we seek.

The article by Elisabeth Rosenthal, To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose Their Helmets, is richly thought-provoking.

European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.

On the other hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles.

There are four main points here, if I am reading it correctly, and without too great a stretch I think that for each point we can substitute online participation for cycling, and helmet use for heavy-handed internet use warnings and limitations.

  • one, cycling isn’t as dangerous as people think;
  • two, expanding cycling makes the general population better off, healthier and safer, so that the greater good far outweighs any small increase in risk;
  • three, communicating or emphasizing the use of helmets intensifies people’s unwarranted fears, and hence diminishes problematically the number of people who cycle; and
  • four, the more people cycle, the safer it becomes for all cyclists, so we should be wary of any communication which seeks to promote cycling safety but in doing so reduces the rate of cycling, as that will become counter-productive.

Drawing out each point, with quotes from the Times article:

One, Cycling is safe:

“Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots more injuries during those activities.” The European Cyclists’ Federation says that bicyclists in its domain have the same risk of serious injury as pedestrians per mile traveled.

Two, Expanding cycling is good for everyone:

Europe’s bike-sharing systems have delivered myriad benefits, notably reducing traffic and its carbon emissions.

Three, Emphasizing importance of helmet-wearing may discourage cycling in the general population:

Many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. .. Bicycling advocates say that the problem with pushing helmets isn’t practicality but that helmets make a basically safe activity seem really dangerous.

“if you say cycling is wonderful, but you have to wear armor, they won’t. These are normal human beings, not urban warriors.”  Recent experience suggests that if a city wants bike-sharing to really take off, it may have to allow and accept helmet-free riding.

Four, We increase bicycling safety when we increase ridership, so let’s not discourage it by scaring riders off with warnings.

if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule.

“Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits,” says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.

Let’s see the parallels:

One, Online participation is not that dangerous for children.  From the New York Times in 2009:

A task force created by 49 state attorneys general to look into the problem of sexual solicitation of children online has concluded that there really is not a significant problem.

The report cited is available here:

Two, Expanding online participation is good for everyone.  Students acting as budding digital citizens will be better prepared as active citizens in their adulthood, and will indeed begin to improve the public discourse and improve society before they are adults.   Look at the wonderful girl in Scotland who has made a dramatic improvement in school lunches through her blog.     As the MacArthur foundation has found, in a report entitled Study Shows Time Online Good for Teen Development,

“It might surprise parents to learn that it is not a waste of time for their teens to hang out online,” said Mizuko Ito, University of California, Irvine researcher and the report’s lead author. “There are myths about kids spending time online – that it is dangerous or making them lazy. But we found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”

Or to quote Howard Rheingold:

Three, putting in place too limitations, safety devices, warning systems for online use– heavy handed filters, warning posters, To Catch a Predator type anecdotes– is likely to do more to discourage online participation altogether for children (or for their parental support of online engagement) than it is to inculcate better practices.  I’ve sat through these sessions, and they don’t work.   Some kids tune out altogether, and others are frightened out of any confident or comfortable use and exploration of the web.

Four, the more children are online together, the more they are online under the casual but concerned supervision of caring adults like teachers and parents, the safer they all are.   Safety in numbers matters: the more watchful eyes, the more communication, the more trust that is built up and the more practice students have, the better they will be at effective, safe and productive use of the net.

Now, I don’t want to come off as an unbalanced extremist.   The European city-rental bikes discussed in the New York Times don’t come with helmets, but they do always have brakes on them– in contrast to the fixed-gear bikes sometimes used by messengers in New York, such as in the recent film Premium Rush (see trailer below).   Without a doubt, we should make sure our bikes have breaks installed, and that our kids have some safety precautions in place, including good orientations, watchfulness on web-traffic, and site-designated specific filters on porn and gambling in schools.

Some sources drawn from Will Richardson’s presentation, Embracing Innovation
Top image from the NYTimes, credit Eric Hanson