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Technology Is Less the Big Bad Wolf Than Everyone Thinks

Between 1990 and now, the safety of our kids online has improved in many ways. That's the crux of a 278-page report on Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force.

That's not to say everything is hunky dory and we shouldn't worry at all, but the landscape has improved says John Palfrey, the chairman of the report. And those most at risk online are kids who engage in risky behaviors or face other difficulties such as mental illness, parental issues or substance abuse in their lives.

The task force began its work in February and took a holistic look at research into technology and their safety. It was made up of lots of experts in the field, including representatives from social networking and other technology companies, non-profit experts and academics.

Some of the highlights:

* Online stranger danger has lessened. While some kids, most often those who are high-risk in their offline lives, are still victimized, many kids who are online are sophisticated enough in their use of the technology to know to close the window or reject a stranger talking sex, Palfrey says. "Contrary to popular assumptions, posting personally identifying information does not appear to increase risk in and of itself. Rather, risk is associated with interactive behavior," the report says.

* Competition to improve the Internet safety landscape has resulted in good filtering and auditing tools for parents. These tools help parents both block content and track their kids use of the online medium. By the teen years, these tools are less effective, but that's okay, too. That's when trust and conversations about what kids are doing online need to be used.

* Like the problem of stranger danger, the difficulty of young children seeing inappropriate content online is not all we may think. Kids see more inappropriate content offline than on.

So, where does this leave us? Parents shouldn't think all technology is now safe. There are still places for improvement, but the way we look at that safety involves melding of our online and offline worlds. To kids, there is no difference between these worlds.

For instance, one of the safety issues that stood out for the task force is that of bullying. According to the report:

Studies consistently find that youth reports of that bullying are more common than online harassment 42.4% of youth who report being cyberbullied also report being bullied at school. Offline, adults are frequently unaware that bullying is taking place – let alone present at the moments in which it occurs. Online harassment may be more public and leaves traces that adults can later view

Offline bullying tends to peak in middle school, but online harassment tends to peak later and continue into high school. Reports of gender differences are inconclusive, but generally, girls appear more likely to be online harassment victims.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact prevalence of cyberbullying and online harassment, because the definitions themselves vary, but the research is clear that this risk is the most common risk minors face online.

One reading of the information is that there's a genuine rise in bullying, Palfrey says. Another reading, though, is that bullying is happening in similar amounts, but is, for the first time, being recorded in the online space. "My sense is that, no matter what, there is significant amount of very damaging interaction between young people that causes psychological and sometimes physical harm," Palfrey says. Solutions to bullying require an all-hands-on-deck approach, Palfrey says.

And one growth area that we adults need to keep a close eye on and chat with our kids about is that of user-generated content, Palfrey points out. Little research has been done to look at the kinds of videos that kids are shooting of each other and uploading or sharing via phone. [Sex + Texting, for instance.] A second area that needs more study, Palfrey says, is looking more closely at what sex offenders do in online environments.

For both the bullying and youth-sharing risks, technology can't solve the problems.

Educators, social services folks and law enforcement all need to collaborate to be knowledgeable about and police online spaces, says the task force. The report should not be read that there is no problem. There’s always a concern when talking about kid safety, the task force says. "Meaningful involvement by teachers, parents and peers is the most important for keeping kids safe online," Palfrey says.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  January 14, 2009; 5:20 PM ET  | Category:  Safety
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One solution to help the bullying problem is at This young woman, paralyzed from the chest down in one of the nation's first deadly school shootings, has courageously written her story, and talks about the bullying that the boy who shot her endured. The book is already required reading in some middle and high schools, and should be in all schools for all teens.

Posted by: Stopthebullying | January 14, 2009 9:43 PM | Report abuse

I do not want to seem alarmist but I do have a problem that 50,000 registered sex offenders (RSOs) were on Myspace, and yet the report didi not even address the fact that parents were not notified and communication between these predators and any minor friends to my knowledge, was not analyzed. Obviously identity software was used or some type of scanning software was used to find these registered sex offenders, so there is some effectiveness in identity technology and I would assume age verification technology.

I wish the study would have looked at exactly what communication occurred between the RSOs and minors. Did they look at the minors contacted by the RSOs and find that those minors are high risk? As my wife said, "It sounds like they are blaming the woman for being raped." It is hard to be so detached if your child had been contacted. I sent an e-mail to myspace about my child. I do not know if they will answer but they should answer to somebody.

As far as technology, I did not see much testing completed. What I saw was summary dismissal by saying that someone could do this or that to get around adult level verification. There is no perfect technology for age verification but some reasonable protection seems warranted even if it is not perfect. There is no perfect car alarm, but they are useful and do deter.

Posted by: caesarsf | January 15, 2009 12:01 AM | Report abuse

First, I want to proclaim that I am the CEO of a company called BeenVerified. In fact, I got the opportunity to present during the Internet Safety Technical Task Force's Open Meeting back in September. What we presented then and what remains to be our focus is today is the importance of "Online Identity." Before we can solve the specific issue of child safety online, we must begin to understand the issues of identity as they relate to the entire social web. Before we are able to reach the true potential of our communication technology, we must start to tackle the issue of transparency. It will be a slow process, but there are things we could be doing RIGHT NOW to help tackle this issue. For example, you should consider having your own identity "verified" when using the web. Therefore, you are showing the world exactly who you are. Maybe other people will soon follow. I would love to keep this conversation going so please continue the dialogue.

Posted by: josh9 | January 15, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

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