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Scare tactics, blocking sites can be bad for kids

New report urges parents, teachers, government to educate children about online risks and being good digital citizens instead of spreading panic.

Online Safety and Technology Working Group

Scaring children about the dangers of the Internet and blocking access to social-networking sites can do more harm than good, according to a report released Friday by a committee tasked by the U.S. government to explore online safety.

Parents, teachers, government agencies, and other organizations should promote online citizenship and media-literacy education, and actively encourage the participation of children in the process, concludes the report entitled "Youth Safety on a Living Internet." It was produced by the Online Safety and Technology Working Group, which was created by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The report addresses some misperceptions about the dangers children face using the Internet. For instance, sexual predation exists "but not nearly in the prevalence once believed," according to the 148-page report. The report cites studies, including research funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, that show there is a very low statistical probability that a young person will be physically assaulted by an adult whom they first encountered online. Research from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that use of MySpace and Facebook by adolescents did not appear to increase their risk of being victimized by online predators.

"Other risks, such as cyberbullying, are actually much more common than thought--starting as early as second grade for some children," the report says. "Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline."

Nine percent to 35 percent of young people report being the victim of "electronic aggression," according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. An Iowa State University study found that 54 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth had been victims of cyberbullying within the past 30 days, according to the report.

"Meanwhile, 'new' issues such as 'sexting' garner a great deal of media attention, though recent studies suggest it is not quite as common as initially believed," the report says.

The research mentioned other, less obvious risks, such as: identity theft (children and teens are valuable targets because of their typically clean credit histories); over-use or obsessive use of technology; and loss of reputation from posting photos and written records that could be embarrassing later.

Teaching children civil, respectful behavior online and offline is the key to fostering a safe Internet environment, the report says. It urges the government to promote nationwide education in digital citizenship and media literacy and specifically recommends that the government create a Web-based clearinghouse for youth-risk and social-media research.

The report also recommends that the government avoid "scare tactics" and rather promote an approach to risk prevention based on social norms. Dangerous online behavior mirrors unsafe offline behavior and similar notions of etiquette and safety should apply, the report says.

Schools often filter sites or block social networks, believing it is in the best interest of the students. But students can get around the firewalls and filtering technology, while blocking the sites can have a negative effect on student safety, the report warns.

"There is some evidence that social networks can be protective in helping to shape and reinforce positive norms," the report says.