By Trish Smith
On January 13, 2009, the New York Times ran an article by Brad Stone on their website entitled, “Report Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown.” In this article, the Mr. Stone discussed a recent report by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (a task force created by 49 state attorneys general to look into the issue of sexual solicitation of children online). This task force examined, among other things, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, to assess the extent of sexual solicitation of children by adults.
The task force (which was led by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University) found that bullying among children is, in fact, a far greater threat to them than sexual predators. It also found that when teenagers do become involved with sexual predators online, they are typically willing participants and already at risk because of their home environments or risky behaviors, such as substance abuse.
Leaving aside the questions raised by that last sentence (is a child not a victim as long as he or she is a willing participant? Is a predator less a predator because his underage victim agreed to participate?), I realized after reading the article that Mr. Stone missed the boat entirely.
How did that happen? Well, first consider the following question. What was the point of this article? Admittedly, Mr. Stone may have simply decided to report what seemed to be an important news story. He probably thought he was writing a factual article, not editorializing. However, his opening sentence communicates the message of his article quite clearly: “The Internet may not be such a dangerous place for children after all.”
So is this the true story?
The idea that the internet is actually safer for kids than we thought it was? Before you answer that question, first consider this one: How safe SHOULD the internet be? How safe do we want it to be for our kids? As the mother of a five-year old, I can say from my own experience that there is no such thing as “too safe”. There is also no such thing as “not so dangerous”.Â
Articles (and reports) such as these seem predicated on one thing: the idea that we can reduce risk, for ourselves, for our kids, for those we care about. The logical conclusion of that argument is that someday, somehow, with the right technology, we can reduce risk down to nothing. But the truth of the matter is that we cannot. Risk cannot be eliminated; it can only ever be managed. And so the idea that the internet is not “as dangerous” as we thought it was, is a non-argument. It implies that there is an acceptable level of risk to our kids on the internet, and that once we reach that level of perceived safety, we can reduce our safety measures. But no responsible parent is likely to say, “Well thank goodness, the internet isn’t so dangerous! Now I can let my pre-teen daughter roam the chat rooms unsupervised.” It does nothing to help parents make decisions about how to protect their children, whether the chance of something happening is 1% or 100%.. As far as helping those who most need information, this article fails miserably.
So what DO parents and other caretakers need?
We don’t need to be told that our fears are unfounded, when we know that the level of risk will always be too high, simply by the very nature of the internet. We need, instead, to be given ways – proven ways – to protect our children from the dangers that we know are out there. We need tools that will allow the internet to provide an experience that’s educational, entertaining, and that doesn’t put our children in harm’s way. If Mr. Stone had written an article about that, he’d have captured the real story of child safety on the internet.
Note from Michael Santarcangelo: This an other reasons have led to the creation of our “Building the Family Safety Net” seminar and our soon-to-be launched “Family Safety Net Salon.” Look for more details this Spring (and an invitation to join before the public launch).Â