ConnectSafely’s Statement in Berkman Task Force Report

At the end of their 12 months’ deliberation, members of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (corporations and nonprofit organizations) at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society were invited to add a one-page statement about their report. The following is ConnectSafely.org’s statement, which can be found in PDF format in this appendix of the task force’s report to the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking of State Attorneys General of the United States:

December 17, 2008

From: Larry Magid & Anne Collier, co-directors, ConnectSafely.org

Conventional wisdom and many of the technical products and services proposed to the Task Force point to greater parental control. The reasoning is that, if parents had the tools, resources and skills to control their children’s Internet use, online youth would be safer. This is not an unreasonable approach but there are two potential problems with this assumption:

  1. The research presented to the Task Force shows that greater parental control is not likely to be available to the children who are most at risk online. The highest-risk population does not enjoy the kind of parenting likely to adopt parental controls or opt-in programs.
  2. A little-discussed additional risk: the unintended consequences of parental control. To explain:

There are parents who, for a variety of reasons (political, cultural, or religious beliefs, ignorance of the facts, fear of being exposed as abusers, etc.), would deliberately prevent their teens from accessing social-network sites (SNS). Parents do have rights regarding minor children, but children have rights as well, and taking away some of these could have a profound negative impact. A graphic example is the number of referrals directly from MySpace to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which says peers are among the most important referrers of troubled teens. Other examples of potential unintended consequences:

  • Teens who are abused, neglected or otherwise mistreated at home being denied access to a venue for discussing issues pertaining to their abuse, including how to find help.
  • Teens seeking support when caught up in divorces or domestic conflict where the legal guardian wishes to “protect” them from their other parent.
  • Teens losing access to resources that help them find their way out of eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviors.
  • Gay and lesbian teens whose parents might prevent them from understanding their sexuality, possibly leading to further isolation, depression and self-destructive behavior.
  • Teens who think they might have a STD being barred from getting help.
  • Pregnant teens unable to explore their options.
  • Law enforcement, social workers, and parents losing access to clues from youth who are using SNS to display their intentions to commit dangerous crimes.
  • Parents, educators, and researchers losing access to unprecedented insights into adolescent development and behavior as well as self-destructive behavior.
  • Children (including many who are U.S. citizens) being denied access because their parents are reluctant to fill out forms in fear of deportation or other legal consequences.
  • Institutionalizing a youth culture of workarounds and deceit due to systemic restrictions.
  • Creating for parents a false sense of “security” as new restrictions drive children underground to sites that are offshore or that simply aren’t run by responsible companies.

We are concerned about any policy or technical control being imposed on youth Internet users without full consideration of these and other potential unintended consequences for youth whose parents are unable or unwilling to give their consent.

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