Our school division is contemplating having a presentation by the Safe Surfin’ Foundation on helping children be safe online. In general these types of things can be helpful in that they remind students about some of the so-called “dangers” that are in online environments. At the same time, it is my continuing understanding that these fears are overblown and that we need to change the narrative of our conversation on Internet Safety.
We need to change the conversation from one of fear to one of confidence and empowerment, helping our students know what is appropriate information to put online and what is appropriate behavior when online. These technologies and technology tools aren’t going away, and using fear as a tactic to frighten students will possibly work for some, but certainly not for all.
In looking at the literature that I received, one of the quotes that jumped out at me was “According to the FBI there is a 100% chance that your child/grandchild will meet a sexual predator in a chat room.” I read this and immediately thought, “based on what evidence?” What research has been done to substantiate such a claim? To me it sounds an awful lot like the “Scared Safe” approach to Internet Safety.
Yet, based on the research done at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, they have found that during the time period between 2000 and 2006 arrests of Internet predators was increasing while overall sex offenses against children were going down. This says to me that the Internet is not the big bad place that many Internet Safety people claim it to be. In addition, the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that, “There was no evidence that online predators were stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on information they posted at social networking sites.”
Other research shows that children who might get into a risky online situation are the same children who take risks in their off-line lives. It is these students who are more willing to enter a chat room and talk about sex with strangers; it is these students who are more likely to seek out someone to meet off-line, too. Generally speaking, the Internet is a far safer place to be than other places young people might hang out. I think we need to remember this.
Finally, some of the suggestions from the report are:
For example, we think that more efforts need to be made to educate and discourage teens from engaging in sexual and romantic relationships with older partners.
Youth awareness also needs to be raised about age of consent and statutory rape laws, the illegality of cross generational sexual solicitation online, the inadvisability of teens engaging in sexual conversations and exchanging sexual or provocative images with strangers and presenting themselves in sexualized descriptions online.
These sorts of messages are more likely to address the real dynamics of the crime than warnings about being stalked by someone who obtains personal information posted online.
In addition I would encourage educators to help families understand that the people in their kids’ lives are more of a danger than strangers online. People such as fathers, step-fathers, close family friends, and clergy are statistically more likely to develop an inappropriate relationship and commit a sex crime than a stranger online.
Crimes Against Children Research Center
The Myth of Online Predators