Dawn Wible

By Susan Bean Aycock

Online Safety Advocate; Founder and CEO: Talk More. Tech Less.

It’s a topic that everyone’s talking about but still hard to hear in raw statistics. But Dawn Wible is making sure that the message gets out on the very real “online harms” posed to minors by the internet, particularly social media.

The term “online harms” encompasses a host of uncomfortable subjects that include illegal and underage internet drug sales, cyberbullying, pro-self-harm content, deadly online challenges and sexual exploitation of minors. And it’s happening everywhere, even in Waco.

A former elementary school teacher, Wible founded her educational training company “Talk More. Tech Less.” in 2014 to raise consciousness about the negative effects of cellphone use that she was starting to see with her own kids. A decade later, the Baylor graduate has trained more than 20,000 families, educators and community members in age-appropriate topics related to cellphone use, including online harms, relational connection, physical and mental health and more.

Over the past year, she’s sharpened her focus to include fighting for state and federal legislation to keep minors safer online.

“We need to hold Big Tech accountable for harmful online content, including platforms that condone anonymity, keep hold of our children’s attention and prey on their vulnerabilities for profit,” she said. “If we as parents and community members don’t look at these issues, we’re leaving kids on their own to be preyed upon.”

Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock sat down with Wible recently to discuss hard facts on a subject that every parent, grandparent, educator and community member needs to hear about.

Let’s get one question out of the way: how do you pronounce your last name?
[Laughing] It rhymes with Bible. That’s our standard response when my husband Matt and I have to give our name.

This is one of those situations where you’d might rather not be right, but you were at the forefront speaking out on the increasingly harmful effects of online technology on kids. What were your goals in founding your company?
I founded Talk More. Tech Less. [TMTL] in 2014 to educate about and advocate for online wellness and safety for our kids. I saw the issue firsthand in my own family but also beginning to grow in the community at large. I do paid speaking engagements to schools, companies, community organizations and medical professionals. I talk about human connection, online safety, reducing screen time and the benefits of delaying smartphones for young kids.

Has public perception shifted in the past decade in recognizing the dangers of technology and specifically social media to young people? How has it changed your work?
When I founded TMTL, I felt I was seen as a sort of conspiracy theorist who was reading too much into the issue, but by 2017 a lot of research started coming out in the news that families were relating to. Stories started popping up about kids suffering from cyberbullying, dangerous drug sales and sexual exploitation. People started paying attention. Those of us who have been in the digital wellness field for a while are seeing a huge shift in awareness and desire for change. [Note: Wible is a certified digital wellness educator through the Digital Wellness Institute.] Now I also advocate for stronger regulation of online harms.

Dawn Wible joined survivor parents who lost their kids to online harms in Washington, D.C. for the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Sexual Exploitation of Minors Online.

You also serve as co-chair of the Online Harms Prevention Group, which TMTL is part of. Can you tell me about that?
It’s an action workgroup in association with the Screen Time Action Network at Fairplay. We’re a group of online safety professionals along with survivor parents — those who have lost kids to various online harms. We educate key stakeholders about online dangers for young people. In our workgroup there are about 60 members, 30 each professionals and survivor parents, and they are a force.

How are young people lured into online harms? And how do some of those lead to death?
There are lots of ways minors are tricked into harmful situations by the internet and sadly, some of them lead to death. A teenager may think they’re buying an anti-anxiety drug, and get a drug laced with fentanyl shipped right to their house. They may die by a drug they never even intended to take, with the ease of online buying. Kids can come across pro-eating disorder or self-harm content pushed to their feeds through algorithms, computer programs that choose what content appears on your feed and designed to keep you engaged for as long as possible.
‘Financial sextortion’ is the fastest-growing crime targeting children in North America. Teenaged boys are being contacted by ‘peers’ — actually cybercriminals posing as teen girls on fake social media accounts. They specifically reach out to teen boys with fake nude photos, asking them to respond with their own sexually explicit photos. But once the boys send the images, they’re blackmailed into sending money over the threat of exposure to their parents, social platforms, schools and youth pastors. The tragedy of being sexually exploited is compounded when the kids aren’t able to send the money, and they become paranoid and panicky, feeling so hopeless that they sometimes take their own lives.

How can that kind of sick content stay up? How do we fight it?
Cybercriminals even upload their sextortion training videos onto social media platforms, where they circulate and algorithms push this content teaching people how to get rich off of extorting young boys. And the sick part is, the platforms don’t have to take it down. This is what we’re talking about when we say the laws have to be updated to catch up with cybercrimes that are harming our kids. Thankfully, the FBI nationally and Sheriff’s Office locally are aware and working hard to stop it.

What kind of numbers are we talking about? Who monitors those?
The Network Contagion Research Institute [NCRI], is the world’s foremost expert in identifying the spread of misinformation across social media platforms. In a recent threat intelligence report, it reported that the FBI described a ‘digital pandemic’ of financial sextortion of minors.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children [NCMEC] reported a 7,200% increase in financial sextortion targeting children in the past two years. Its CyberTipline received more than 32 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation between 2021 and 2022.
In Waco, the Sheriff’s Office made 17 arrests last July in a human trafficking sting that included online solicitations of minors.

The increase in online harms for minors in the United States has prompted parents like Wible to stand up to big tech companies that allow content that targets children.

Over the past year, you’ve become increasingly involved in advocating and testifying for legislation protecting minors against online harms. How did that come about?
After 10 years of educating communities on how to be safer and healthier on devices, I realized the burden of responsibility needs to be placed where it belongs: on the tech companies that are building these addictive platforms without accountability, not on kids and parents and schools.

Tell me about your legislative involvement at the statewide level.
My first experience getting into legislative policy was testifying to the Texas Senate last summer in support of two online safety bills relating to social media, trafficking and minors.
HB18 relates to protecting minors from harmful, deceptive or unfair trade practices in connection with the use of certain digital services and electronic devices. Maurine Molak, founder of David’s Legacy Foundation [whose mission is to eliminate cyber-bullying through education, legislation and legal action] and I testified to support Texas minors who have been harmed by pro-suicide content that was pushed to their social media feed through algorithms. That bill was passed into law last July.
The policy director of NCOSE [the National Center On Sexual Exploitation] reached out to me to testify on a device filtering bill, SB417, which requires phones sold to minors to default to safe settings. That bill was passed through the Texas Senate.

What legislative changes are you supporting at the national level?
One important piece of pending legislation is the bill ‘Stop CSAM’ [Child Sexual Abuse Material]. Another is KOSA [Kids Online Safety Act], which requires platforms to have the highest safety settings by default for minors’ accounts. It also holds tech companies responsible for designing their products to protect children using them.

You went to Washington, D.C. Jan. 31–Feb. 1. Tell me about that trip.
I attended the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Sexual Exploitation of Minors Online with my Online Harms Prevention Group, which I co-chair. The top five Big Tech CEOs testified and were questioned by Congress. Our survivor parents held up photos of their deceased children to force the CEOs to see the faces of their children who had lost their lives to online harms.
Heads of the ‘Big Five’ companies were: Meta [Facebook and Instagram], X [formerly Twitter], Snapchat, Discord and TikTok. Two of the top companies had to be subpoenaed to show up; they actually pour millions of dollars into lobbying against online safety bills. We met with several senators afterwards so that the parents could tell their stories. Over our two trips to D.C., I’ve spoken to Senator Ted Cruz, Representative Pete Sessions, and to the offices of Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, along with about 15 others.

How did those Big Tech CEOs react?
[Meta CEO] Mark Zuckerberg’s apology felt forced to me, but the moment he turned to the survivor parents holding up their kids’ pictures, I felt the room shift. It felt like the first time he was taking responsibility for the harm his company had done. The parents didn’t take it as a genuine apology, but as the first acknowledgment that the platforms hold some responsibility for their children’s deaths.

How does concrete change come about through legislation when the stakes are so high economically for the big companies, but even higher for the kids’ and families whose well-being is at stake?
We the people, right? Well, I think the people are speaking up. Legislation has a lot to do with the community part of online safety. It takes a village, and there are a lot of different networks collaborating to promote stricter legislation. Some of the policy work being done focuses on why we consider companies’ actions to be harmful to kids and how they do that. Kids aren’t necessarily out there looking for harmful stuff, but these big companies push content and set algorithms to get it in front of them. We need to keep pushing legislation that makes them responsible for that.

It seems as though passing any legislation these days is difficult because of the divisiveness of political extremes. How do you deal with that?
Keeping our kids safe in a digital age is one place where everyone should come together. And we’re seeing it on this issue. Maybe the different factions don’t agree on much else, but they see the impact of technology on kids as parents, grandparents and community members. They see the power of Big Tech, and them hearing the real stories gives me hope that things will change.
A very positive thing is how thoughtfully the bills are built to be as bipartisan as possible, so that they’ll pass. For instance, the right may want to ensure that freedom of speech isn’t being diminished, while the left may be focusing on making sure that marginalized communities are included. By us attending hearings and testifying for proactive legislation, politicians get to hear both the stories and the numbers — and the numbers don’t lie. 32 million reports of sexual exploitation of minors last year across the country is not a small number.

What about your own family and how they fit into your mission to help kids resist the lure of technology to form real and healthy connections?
TMTL isn’t just a business for me; it’s where I live, being a parent of three sons in a digital age. I had just had my third son when I started this. So it hits close to home as a parent. My husband, Matt, is a former youth pastor who founded [H.O.T.] Field Guides, an outdoor mentorship organization for young men, in 2005, right as social media was coming on the scene.
Our sons are 17, 15 and 10 years old, so we’re right in the middle of all this! We saw a shift in the effects of technology on our own lives when we became parents, but we’ve also seen a shift in global attitudes on fighting the addictive pull of too much technology. Note that the name of my company is ‘Talk More. Tech Less.’ — not no tech ever. It’s all about prioritizing what human connection looks like in a digital age.

What do you and Matt allow or not allow in your own home?
We delay our kids having their own devices until middle school and delay social media until high school. We use screen time settings in our family sharing accounts on our devices. With phones, we start our kids out with ‘dumb phones’ and as they earn more trust and get older, give them more access and apps on their devices.

In your talks, you mention a ‘Detox Box.’ What is that?
The Detox Box is where it all started. It’s a simple box for kids to put their phones in at mealtimes and at night. The boys in Matt’s organization, Field Guides, built them that first year and now we sell them on our website. It was a creative way for us to find a solution to having our phones on us day and night. It gives your brain a break, your relationship time to connect apart from the distractions of a device, and it supports sleep.
There are going to be people who read this and think, ‘This can’t really be happening in Waco.’ What do you say to them?
It’s happening in every community, including ours, and parents can’t afford to be complacent. I do speaking engagements on the average of once a week and get told sometimes not to scare families, but it’s important to face the issues. I spend a lot of time talking about digital wellness and how to develop healthier habits, with the emphasis being on the importance of kids learning how to be well on their devices. If they’re not well, they’re not safe. And if they’re not safe, they’re not well. Digital wellness and safety go hand in hand.

You also work part-time for another local organization that deals with sex trafficking and exploitation. Tell me about that.
20 years ago, my best friend, Emily Mills, asked me to go into local strip clubs with her to bring gifts of love to the women working there. I said yes and it changed our lives. She and her husband Brett founded Jesus Said Love as a healing community for survivors of sexual exploitation, trauma and trafficking. As a survivor of sexual trauma myself, I know the importance of having a safe space. Their organization is now called Lovely Village, and I’m honored to be part of their work. This past Good Friday was the 20th anniversary of bringing the love of Christ into those clubs.

What has been parents’ and educators’ reaction to your message?
We know that parenting is one of the hardest but most rewarding parts of life, and as parents, we care so much about these humans of ours. After my training sessions, parents often tell me how appreciative they are, how encouraging and empowering it is to have real information to make better decisions at home. Educators say they feel a sense of confirmation for what they’re witnessing with their students. [The training] gives them language for setting healthier boundaries in their classrooms.

How do you promote your business and get hired as a speaker?
I work closely with school counselors and campus social workers, as they’re close to the issues with students.

What can parents do to help protect their children against online harms?
One of the most important things is to delay access to social media until they’re older. My youngest son is 10 and most of his friends are on social media while he isn’t. Make sure your kids know they can come to you about what they see or experience online; this is a direct message from a survivor parent who’s a friend of mine. Keep those lines of communication and secure connections with your kids a priority in your home. Matt and I know the struggle and we’re working on this very thing in our own home. Be their safe place and TALK MORE!

Any parting words?
Believe it or not, I’m an optimist, so this work keeps me close to the issues and close to the grief, while still holding out hope. It’s what keeps me going in this important work.

Contact Dawn Wible about digital safety training at your school, workplace or organization at dawn@talkmoretechless.com. To stay informed on these issues, follow TMTL on Instagram at instagram.com/talkmoretechless.