A Content Analysis of Youth Internet Safety Programmes: Are Effective Prevention Strategies Being Used?

This US study assesses the effectiveness of teaching techniques used to discuss online safety and tackle cyberbullying.

  • Lisa M. Jones, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Wendy A. Walsh
  • Crimes Against Children Research Center, (December, 2014)

Internet safety education

Research has found that many of the online dangers popularised by the media, such as child sexual predators, are quite rare (Wolak, Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Ybarra, 2008). Most problems young people experience online involve sexual harassment and verbal peer aggression, paralleling problems that they are dealing with offline.

Prevention research, most recently Jones, Mitchell, & Walsh, 2014, shows that curricula with active, skill-based lessons and adequate time for learning have the best results. Effective programmes also define their goals clearly and focus their educational efforts on factors that are causally linked to the problem of concern.

Research from the early 1990s shows that assembly presentations using fear-based tactics are ineffective when applied to youth problems, but are still used today.

This study reviews internet safety education (ISE) programme materials using content analysis asking the following questions: Which ISE topics are being covered using which key educational messages? To what degree do programmes incorporate current research knowledge on ISE? Do they adhere to known effective educational strategies?

Materials from four long-standing ISE programmes (iKeepSafe, i-SAFE, Netsmartz, and WebWiseKids) were reviewed based on their prominence in the field and use by educators.

It used two key measures: the KEEP (Known Elements of Effective Prevention) Checklist, and the ISE Fact Checking Sheets.

The KEEP Checklist identifies five basic prevention education characteristics that have been shown to be critical to effectiveness across many areas of youth prevention (drug abuse, mental health problems, aggression, delinquency, school drop-out, bullying, sexual abuse):

  1. a structured curriculum or lessons;
  2. skill-based learning objectives;
  3. active participant involvement and learning;
  4. an adequate programme dose;
  5. extra learning opportunities.

To obtain some measure of the degree to which the reviewed ISE materials included research-based messages, the researchers created three ISE Fact Checking Sheets. These evaluated the degree to which ISE materials provided research-based information on:

  1. sexual solicitations/internet predators;
  2. sexting;
  3. online harassment or cyberbullying.


All of the programmes provided "structured lessons" with adequate information on how to use their materials in a classroom or small-group setting. Most of the reviewed lessons included active discussion sessions in which time was set aside for young people to respond to open-ended questions. For example, the Netsmartz activity card for the video "You Can't Take it Back" includes discussion questions asking: "What should the boy have done when his friends asked him to rate the website?" These kinds of discussions give young people an opportunity to engage critical thinking.

However, the reviewed programmes generally failed to list skill-based learning objectives.

All of the programmes had created multiple lessons on a range of different ISE topics, but the lessons were typically offered as stand-alone topics. I-SAFE and iKeepSafe's Google Digital Literacy Tour Workshops came closest to being a multi-lesson curriculum.

The materials on internet predators included an average of two out of seven possible research-based messages. None of the materials reviewed depicted internet predators as an older man who preyed on young children. Internet predator scenarios involved solicitors usually known to be an adult by the teenager.

However, none of the materials reviewed informed young people that internet predators are relatively rare, and talked about the more common experience of receiving unwanted sexual requests online by peers, or that sexual assault by a person they know is more likely than an unknown predator online.

Key messages

For ISE programmes targeting children, the most common educational message was: "Tell an adult if something happens online that makes you uncomfortable."

Another key message provided by almost all ISE programmes was the instruction: "Don't share or post personal information online." Sometimes programmes specified the kind of personal information that should not be shared.

For pre-teens, a common ISE message was to "be wary of people you meet online" and young people were told "never meet in person with someone you meet online". Five of the eight ISE programmes targeted at younger children included these warnings. For older children, key messages were to "Not bully" and "Be respectful."

Implications for practice

  • Improve educational strategies. ISE programmes need to place a greater emphasis on skill-building. Messages that tell young people to not cyberbully or share sexual pictures with a boyfriend are unlikely to make a difference.
  • Use research-based content. ISE programmes need to draw more from research in developing content. Implying problems are more prevalent than they are may lead young people to discount the messages.
  • Explicit and sound programme logic. Most messages analysed had faulty or unclear logic models. For example, advice to young people to "think before you click" appears to be based on the idea that impulsivity is causing online problems.

The four research studies for this special report have been selected by the PSHE Association

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on PSHE education. Click here for more

CYP Now Digital membership

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice
  • Legal updates
  • Local area spotlights

From £170 /year


CYP Now Magazine

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice and interviews
  • Legal updates

From £136 /year