Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Study: Fears Over Kids' Safety Online Misplaced

One of the flood of newsletters I get every week is from the US Internet Industry Association[1] (USIIA). This week it had an interesting blurb about the safety of children on the 'Net. This is a hot button issue with an overabundance of groups and organizations decrying the state of the online world. If you believe them, every person online is a pedophile or sociopath. Everyone of "us" is trying to lure children to their doom. They quote all kinds of numbers at you and ask for donations so they can "Save the Children." Now, I've been doing this online gig in various forms for going on 20 years. There's a plethora of smut mongers, sickos and all kinds of nasty things out there. But is it really as bad as they say?

For many years I have said that if you want your kids to be "safe" from this kind of stuff you need to, as parents, control their access. My son, who is 10 now, has been online for over half his life. He hasn't been anywhere on the Web without me being right there with him. As for schools, they are always going to be massively vulnerable to attacks as long as they continue to use Microsoft products. But vulnerable as schools may be and derelict as parents are in their parenting these days, the situation is not as dire as they would make you believe.

In this edition of the USIIA Newsletter it reported a study done by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) which seems to indicate that the danger has been, well, let's say disproportional to the hoopla surrounding it. To quote from the article:
a new study from the National School Boards Association suggests strongly that many of those fears are misplaced and that the overwhelming majority of kids have never had an unknown adult ask them for personal information.
That's not to say there aren't any incidences, but the "overwhelming majority" of kids have generally been cruising the 'Net undisturbed by the bad guys. It continues on with:
The NSBA study was carried out by surveying 1,277 students aged 9 to 17, 1,039 parents, and 250 school administrators with decision-making power over Internet policy
and that the study:
paints a picture of Internet safety that differs significantly from that commonly depicted by the mainstream media.
An interesting point is the disparity between what the kids are seeing and what the adults believe is happening. For example:
school administrators believe that social networking sites are a significant cause of problems for students. 52 percent of the districts surveyed said that students being free and easy with personal information online has been "a significant problem" despite the fact that only 3 percent of the students in the same study ever reported doing so. The NSBA notes that there is a similar disparity on the subject of cyberbullying.
Finally:
The report concludes with a handful of recommendations, the most controversial of which is likely to be a suggestion that schools reexamine social networking policies. "Safety policies remain important, as does teaching students about online safety and responsible online expression," the studies authors note. "But students may learn these lessons better while they're actually using social networking tools."
You want to know my opinion? Parents should take responsibility for their children. Even when they're at school or camp or something. Teach them early on about what is proper and what to do if they ever should be accosted online. Knowledge is truly power. If the children have the knowledge of what's right and wrong they will have the power to keep from getting themselves into trouble.

That is, of course, until they get between the ages of 15 and 25. These are the years when all reason, logic and rational thought go right out the window.

[1] I would encourage everyone to join the USIIA. They have done more to protect the rights of Internet users than all the other organizations combined.

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