In 1994, when I wrote Child Safety on the Information Highway, the first widely disseminated Internet safety publication, I advised parents not to let kids put personal information or photos online and--because of what turned out to be an exaggerated fear of predators--I urged them to avoid online conversations with strangers. Back then, along with trying to keep kids away from porn, Internet safety was mostly about protecting children from dangerous adults.
But starting around 2005, a new phase of the Web--often referred to as "Web 2.0"--prompted some Internet safety advocates to focus on ways kids could get in trouble for what they post on social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. It was in that year that Anne Collier and I founded BlogSafety.org (later renamed ConnnectSafely.org) so we could provide a forum for discussing safety issues on the interactive Web. It was also around that time that politicians and the media, especially the TV show "To Catch a Predator," started whipping up fears of predators trolling the Web for vulnerable children.
But statistics show that the likelihood of a young person being harmed by an online stranger is quite rare, and sexual solicitations and harassment are most often from peers. And to the extent it has occurred, it affects teens, not young children. Based on studies by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, the overwhelming majority of crimes against youths continue to take place in the "real world," mostly by adults known to the child.
Teens interact with 'real world' friends
That doesn't mean that the Internet is a risk-free zone. It's just that young people are far more likely to be harmed by other youth or the consequences of their own online behavior than by adult criminals.
Their interactions are largely with people they know from the real world. As danah boyd (she prefers a lower case d & b) observed in her doctoral dissertation, Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics (PDF), "teen participation in social network sites is driven by their desire to socialize with peers. Their participation online is rarely divorced from offline peer culture; teens craft digital self-expressions for known audiences and they socialize almost exclusively with people they know."
This understanding of youth risk led to a whole new phase of Internet safety education focusing on such things as cyberbullying and urging youth to avoid posting material that could be embarrassing or get them into trouble with authorities and potential future employers. Recently, the focus has turned to the emotional and legal consequences of "sexting,"--kids sending nude pictures of themselves via cell phones or the Web. But as Collier observed in NetFamilyNews.org, we run the risk of "technopanics" over sexting and bullying.
What we've learned from observing how kids use the Net, mobile phones, gaming devices, and other interactive technology is that there is really no distinction between online and offline behaviors. Technology is woven into their lives. They don't go online, they ARE online. So it's really about youth safety--not Internet safety.
It's about helping young people make wise choices not just in how they use technology, but in how they live their lives. Internet safety is more than just the absence of danger. It also includes finding ways to use technology for learning, collaboration, community building, political activism, self-help, and reaching out to others.
These are not just philosophical arguments. They're pragmatic because preaching about safety or trying to lock down the Internet doesn't protect kids. Trying to instill fear--especially based on myths--actually increases danger because it causes kids to tune out good advice.
Filters as fences
Sure, there are technologies that can keep kids from using social-networking services or visiting inappropriate Web sites. But, like fences around swimming pools, the use of filters at home and school can't protect them forever. That's why we teach kids to swim. Not only does knowing how to swim help prevent drowning, it empowers them to thrive in the water instead of fearing it. The same is true with technology. Filters and other parental control tools often make sense for young children, but as kids mature into teens, we must pull back on the technological controls in favor of self-control.
In an e-mail interview, Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation observed, "sadly, too many parents think that using technology to track their children's keystrokes or restrict access to certain Web sites is sufficient parenting. It is not. Parents must be involved with their children's virtual lifestyles developing trust, being aware of any potential problems, learning about the technologies they use, and communicating often."
This post is adapted from an article that first appeared in the Palo Alto Daily News.