‘Juvenoia,’ Part 1: Why Internet fear is overrated

Prominent US online-risk researcher David Finkelhor says there’s no evidence to support fears that the Internet increases youth risk and, in fact, there’s evidence suggesting the opposite.

By Anne Collier

Referred to variously as technopanic, predator panic, cyberbullying panic, etc., a lot of fear and anxiety has developed around the intersection of youth and the Internet. Very interestingly, last fall David Finkelhor – director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) and lead author of the US’s first national study on youth risk online in 2000 – used the term “juvenoia” in his recent groundbreaking talk, “The Internet, Youth Deviance & the Problem of Juvenoia.” He defined juvenoia as “the exaggerated fear of the influence of social change [including the Internet] on youth.” This week, the first of a two-part series on Dr. Finkelhor’s talk: why the fear is unsupported by the evidence and (next week) why all the fear.

It’s one thing to say that the Internet has dangers on it; it’s a very different thing to say that the Internet increases dangers, David Finkelhor said early in his talk. The problem is, that second view has become the dominant narrative in the public discussion about young people online. The “risk-promotion narrative,” he also calls it, doesn’t say that “when kids go online bad things can happen because they can happen anywhere,” like in a city – which of course is true. What the narrative says instead, and incorrectly, is that “intrinsic features of the Internet increase risk and augment vulnerability.”

On the contrary: “The remarkable and jarring thing” about the risk-promotion narrative’s development, Finkelhor said, is that, in the very period the Net has become pervasive – the past 15 years – “we’ve been observing a dramatically contradictory, positive pattern to the social problem indicators … including many you’d expect to be canaries in the coal mine, if it were indeed the case that this mass migration of young people into the technological world were really having such a corrupting and deviance-amplifying influence on them.” [Kids' Internet adoption was about 20% higher than adults' during that period, he said.]

Wide range of positive indicators

Here are a number of the positive social indicators Finkelhor pointed out in his slides showing the trending graph for each one (starting at about 8:15 into the talk), and these are not all the positive indicators, he said:

Here are a number of the positive social indicators Finkelhor pointed out in his slides showing the trending graph for each one (starting at about 8:15 into the talk), and these are not all the positive indicators, he said:

* Sexual abuse of minors is down (58% from 1992 to 2008, he wrote in this 2010 CCRC article).
* Teen sexual intercourse and pregnancy are down.
* Bullying is down (see this), as is the number of kids reporting getting into physical fights.
* The number of kids reporting being targeted by hate speech is down.
* The teen suicide rate “has dropped dramatically.”
* The number of teens who say they comtemplated suicide or felt sad or hopeless is down.
* The number of crimes committed by young people has “gone down dramatically in the United States.”
* School violence is down.
* Teen drug use is down too.

Areas Finkelhor mentioned where the numbers go up are child obesity and children living in poverty. He’s not suggesting these indicators are a rigorous test of the hypothesis that the Internet is a risk-amplifier, but “it’s really just a hypothesis, still must be proven, and doesn’t have a lot of evidence to support it,” he said. But, he pointedly asks, “can a huge social change like the Internet occur, have such a negative influence on them … and have none of that toxicity show up in the major social indicators?”

In fact, he has “this intuition that we’re going to look back on this period as one of major and widespread amelioration of social problems affecting children and families.”

Net as a risk reducer

So he’s putting forth a very different hypothesis: that the Internet just might be protective. “Maybe, on balance, it’s deviance-dampening rather than deviance-amplifying,” Finkelhor said. “The movement in all [the above] indicators suggests that this hypothesis deserves consideration.”

So how could the Net be protective? Here are some features of the Net revolution that could be antidotes to behavioral and social problems (you’ll want to hear his full descriptions, starting at about 17:15 into the talk):

* Reduction of boredom and alienation – the Internet is engaging to kids; it may help distract them from negative emotional states; those who don’t feel a sense of mastery in other environments may feel mastery online….
* Changing patterns of independence exploration – armchair adventuring; the actual risks/dangers may be less immediate online; on the Internet, a few more steps need to occur before things happen, “interactions are more drawn out, given to less impulsiveness”
* Increased deviance detection – the offense, whatever it is, has a trail of evidence; bullying becomes not just a rumor or hearsay; maybe because of anxiety lots of parents are having more norms-improving discussions with kids than they’ve had before.
* Surveillance effect – we’ve all had to abdicate some degree of privacy, but that may not be all bad; the knowledge you can be tracked has discouraged deviance as well. It allows parents to be more in touch with children and children with one another, which might reduce some kinds of dangers.

“It’s very possible things got better for young people in spite of the Internet,” not because of it, Finkelhor said – “it’s all very speculative right now. But I like throwing these out to move the discussion forward.”

The ‘stranger danger’ resurgence

“The current Internet juvenoia has been an occasion for the resurgence of this worrisome stranger-danger paradigm,” Finkelhor said. And yet one of criminology’s really big breakthroughs of the last generation was the insight of how much harm occurs at the hands of “intimates and offenders known to children … and how little harm is at the hand of strangers. In spite of broad scientific consensus on this, it’s a hard one to sustain in public perception…. Strangers are always easier to demonize than friends and family,” he adds, referring to the “not in my family” or my school or my place of worship kind of denial that human nature clings to. So unfortunately for the vast majority of youth (and adults) having good or neutral experiences online, and unfortunately for sound policymaking, the Internet is demonized because “stranger-danger will always find a way to assert itself” and the Internet revolution is its new focus.

Not saying there’s no danger

Finally, Finkelhor clarifies, “I’m not saying that all talk about Internet danger is hype. I do think there are dangers on the Internet. We need to understand them, prevent them, and eliminate them, and I’m fully supportive of an active police presence online, of hotlines, of putting pressure on Internet service providers, and of social networking sites minimizing risk through site architecture” and terms of use enforcement. But…

“We only need to know that there are dangers in order to warrant this kind of [mitigation] activity. But we don’t have to argue that the Net is especially dangerous,” Finkelhor said, “any more than we have to argue that Portsmouth, N.H., is especially dangerous in order to have law enforcement there. It’s a relatively safe city, but there’s crime and social problems there, so we do something about that.”

Two other needs he proposes which I’d love to see met soon: “healthy skepticism about claims that the lot of children is changing for the worse” and “a high standard for what we accept as evidence in that regard.”

Next week… ‘Juvenoia’ Part 2, the $64k question: So why are we afraid?

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