Report: Scaring Kids About Online Threats is Counter-Productive

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A government report has concluded that scare tactics aimed at keeping kids safe online, including efforts to ban them from certain sites, are counter-productive measures that could actually do more harm than good. Established pursuant to the "Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act," the Online Safety and Technology Working Group was tasked exactly a year ago with the job of researching and producing the report delivered Friday.

The report includes many details that need a wide airing, since many of them fly in the face of commonly held assumptions about the risks faced by children online.

For instance, it is generally believes that children are at constant risk from online predators who stalk them in online chat rooms and on social networks. While acknowledging that unwanted online solicitations can have serious consequences for minors, the hype far outweighs the actual threat, the report concluded.

“The report cites studies, including research funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, that show there is a very low statistical probability that a young person will be physically assaulted by an adult whom they first encountered online,” wrote Elinor Mills for CNET. “Research from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that use of MySpace and Facebook by adolescents did not appear to increase their risk of being victimized by online predators.”

Sexting also is addressed in the report, which was released Friday, and is also found to be far less consequential than commonly believed. Again, without diminishing the potential negative consequences of sexting, the report concludes that far fewer young people are doing it than previously reported, citing a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study that found only 4 percent of teens had sent “sext” messages of themselves, while 15 percent said they had received them from friends.

“While the 4 percent who admit having sent a ‘sext’ is still a large number,” the report says, “it’s still far from the 20 percent figure reported in a less rigorous 2009 study that prompted a major news website to write in a headline, “Sexting Shockingly Common Among Teens.”

Inappropriate content also is addressed, and interestingly (at least to us), sexual content is mentioned only briefly and in passing, with far more space devoted to other sorts of potentially inappropriate content, such as that which encourages “hate speech, violence or unsafe activities such as drinking, drug use or eating disorders.”

The report says that while there is little that can be done to remove such content from the internet, government can do more to help parents “shield their children from such material and help their children more effectively deal with it when they do encounter it. This includes education on the availability and use of parental control tools (i.e. filters) and encouraging instruction in critical thinking and media literacy—helping children understand how to make good decisions when selecting material for consumption and processing materials that they see.”

Other risks are addressed, including identity theft, exposure to spam and malicious software, activities that get kids in trouble with school authorities, the overuse of technology, and the loss of reputation.

But as problematic as each of those may be for individuals, it turns out that cyber-bullying is a far more common occurrence that can begin as early as in second grade.

"Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline," the report concluded.

The report includes an extended list of organizations that provide services in support of children and parents, and addresses a litany of ways that government, parents, schools and NGOs can work together to improve the online experience so important to young people.

The report also warns that attempts to scare kids will not produce the intended results, and argues strongly against filtering sites or blocking social networks, citing the fact that students can get around the firewalls and filtering technology, and even going so far as to state that blocking the sites can have a negative effect on student safety.

Unfortunately, the report’s conclusions could themselves be seen as counter-productive by many in the “child protection” industry, whose very existence is dependent upon their ability to effectively scare not only the kids, but more importantly their parents. Maybe the report will result in scaring some of them away.

The report is available here.