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.
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