I've been involved in the online safety world since 1994 which, in web terms, is forever. Over the years, a lot of individuals and organizations have joined with efforts to protect kids online but, unfortunately, many online safety messages miss the mark.
Like anything new, the online world once seemed scary to a lot of people and it was easy to imagine all sorts of bad things that could happen to people who use it -- especially children. True, there was (and is) material that's inappropriate for kids including pornography and hate speech. It's also true that there are criminals who use to the net try to exploit people and find children to abuse. But that's also true in our communities and -- sadly -- even in some homes. What's also true about the Internet is that you can't sexually abuse someone through a screen. You can try to lure them, you can shock them, you can upset them but you can't enact any physical harm -- that has to be done in person.
Back in 1994 when I wrote the first edition of Child Safety on the Information Highway for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, we didn't have research to distinguish between likely and exaggerated risks. But organizations like the Crimes Against Children Research Center are actually examining risk and causing safety advocates to re-think our messaging.
Predator risk exaggerated
As I've said before, the predator danger has been largely exaggerated. That's not to say that there aren't adults who -- if given the chance -- would use the net to lure teenagers into sexual encounters -- but it is to say that the number of actual teens and children who are victimized is very small, especially when compared to other risks.
Last year I had the honor of serving on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, a group of internet safety experts from academia, industry and non-profits that was coordinated by Harvard Law School's Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Our report, which was compiled with the help of some of the world's leading researchers, concluded that sexual predation, while a concern, was far less likely than other forms of harm such as bullying and harassment.
The Berkman report also cited research showing that "cases typically involved post-pubescent youth who were aware that they were meeting an adult male for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity." In other words, in the rare situation where a child is exploited, it is almost always a teen who knowingly engages in the activity. It's not the 40 year old man who poses as a 12 year old girl. The victims, in most cases, are youth who, for whatever reason, are seeking out the attention of an older person. Research also found that these victims are typically kids who frequently engage in high-risk activity on and offline line. Messages like "don't talk to strangers online" are very unlikely to reach these young people. What they need instead is serious intervention from professionals who know how to work with "high risk kids."
The real risks -- statistically speaking -- are things that kids do to themselves and others. Those include cyberbullying, sexting, loss of reputation, theft of online identity and other security risks (including weak and shared passwords) and of course wasting time, obsessive use of technology and over-exposure to commercial messaging.
Speaking of wasting time, a report issued this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that youth (8-18) devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to consuming entertainment media during a typical day. But when you factor in multi-tasking, they actually wind up with 10 hours and 45 minutes of content. In a CBS News and CNET podcast interview the report director, Vicky Rideout expressed concern that kids are spending far too much time passively consuming media, not just on TV sets but on computers, cell phone, game consoles and iPods. In her NetFamilyNews commentary on the study, Anne Collier (who is my co-director at ConnectSafely.org) has a more positive and optimistic view of kids use of media, pointing out that "a growing body of research shows that the youth-media story is actually more about sharing, playing with, and producing media, individually and collectively, than consuming it."
Missed opportunities & the need for "Online Safety 3.0″
The biggest risk is not so much the danger of being harmed but the danger of missed opportunities, especially at school. As we point out in, Online Safety 3.0: Protecting and Empowering Youth, schools too often block access to social media and fail to use it in the educational process. While it's true that there are some online activities that ought not to be done during school hours, banning all social media is the 21st century equivalent of banning all books just because some books are inappropriate for use in school. Speaking of books and social media, check out School & social media: Uber big picture where Anne Collier draws a comparison between today's social media and books back in the days of Guttenberg.
I'm also concerned that Internet safety education is missing a big opportunity to reinforce digital citizenship, media literacy and critical thinking -- skills that will serve for life, on and off the net. We can certainly warn kids about the dangers du jour, but the ultimate solution to keeping kids safe is to instill an internal desire to treat themselves and others respectfully. And critical thinking doesn't just protect kids from criminals but from marketing hype, political demagoguery and all the other manipulative tricks that we encounter in society, the marketplace and our personal relationships.