The Internet: Safe for Kids?

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Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies
Final Report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force
Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University; 278 pages

The Gist:

Created by STATE? attorneys general to investigate how technology can better protect children from online dangers, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force says that a) the Internet may not be as dangerous as we think and b) technology's probably not the way to combat the dangers that do exist. Surprisingly, given the widespread fears of sexual predators on the Web, the task force also concluded that the practice of cyber-bullying may actually be more prevalent in the lives of everyday youths. (See TIME's Top 10 Children's Books of 2008)

Highlight Reel:

1. On the mistaken belief that sexual overtures on the Web come largely from older adults : "The actual threats that youth may face appear to be different than the threats most people imagine. More problematically, media coverage has regularly mischaracterized research in this area, thus contributing to inaccurate perceptions of what risks youth face. This problem was most visible in the public coverage of the Online Victimization studies done at the Crimes Against Children Research Center...These reports are frequently referenced to highlight that one in five or one in seven minors are sexually solicited online. Without context, this citation implies massive solicitation of minors by older adults. As discussed below, other peers and young adults account for 90%-94% of solicitations in which approximate age is known. Also, many acts of solicitation online are harassing or teasing communications that are not designed to seduce youth into offline sexual encounters; 69% of solicitations involve no attempt at offline contact. Misperception of these findings perpetuates myths that distract the public from solving the actual problems youth face."

2. On cyberbullying: "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...In order to help the most minors, addressing online harassment and its underlying causes should be the top priority."

3. On under-researched areas of study: "In addition to the topics discussed here, some areas of youth online safety are critically under-researched, particularly (1) minor-minor solicitation; (2) the creation of problematic (sexual, violent, self-harm) content by minors; (3) less visible groups, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender youth and youth with disabilities who may be particularly vulnerable; (4) the interplay between socioeconomic class and risk factors; (5) the role that pervasive digital image and video capture devices play in minor-to-minor harassment and youth production of problematic content; (6) the intersection of different mobile and Internet-based technologies; and (7) the online activities of registered sex offenders."

The Lowdown:

This extensive, yearlong study can be essentially summarized thusly: don't be overly reliant on technology to keep your kids safe from technology. There's no one quick answer — age verification, filtering, etc. — that will keep children from harm. And with few exceptions (exceptions that are usually latched on to and tarted up by the media), the perils children face online are no greater those they face in the real world every day. The song remains the same, moms and dads — it's your responsibility to make sure your kids aren't getting into something they can't handle. Don't blame the medium.

The Verdict: Skim

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