The kids who are most at risk offline (& online)

By Anne Collier

In 2009, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force published a finding that the young people most at risk online are those most at risk offline, a clear indicator to me that online risk is not a unique new problem brought on by the Internet. In their thorough review of the online risk literature released right up through that year, the researchers on our task force shared some of the offline risks that correlated with online problems – sexual abuse, family conflict, substance abuse, etc. – and offered an important insight: that what’s going on around a child (his/her home and school environments plus) what’s going on in his or her head (his/her psychosocial makeup) are better predictors of online risk than any technology the child uses.

But I wondered what the scope of the problem was – what percentage of the children in our society are considered at risk. Reading a recent commentary in the New York Times’s Opinionator blog, I felt closer to an answer. Commentator and author David Bornstein writes about the impacts of “toxic stress” – “frequent or continual stress” in young children who face adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as “abuse, neglect, domestic violation and family dysfunction” and “who lack adequate protection and support from adults.” Citing a key study by Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda in the late 1990s that has since been borne out in other studies around the US, Bornstein writes that “about 40% of respondents reported two or more ACEs, and 25% reported three or more.” Wow. So at least one-quarter of our children might be designated as “at risk.” These are the young people most in need of support online and offline.

From stress to resilience

Bornstein’s blog post is more about the solutions than the problem, though, and he offers an important caveat: “It’s important to note that toxic stress is not a determinant, but a risk factor. And while prevention is best, it’s never too late to mitigate its effects.” And this is key: He writes that “it’s also critical to distinguish between ‘toxic stress’ and normal stress….

“In the context of a reasonably safe environment where children have protective relationships with adults … childhood stress is not a problem. In fact, it promotes healthy growth, coping skills and resilience. It becomes harmful when it is prolonged and when adults do not interact in ways that make children feel safe and emotionally connected.”

Healing skills for parents

But parents and other caring adults in a child’s life can be taught how to help children feel safe and connected. Bornstein tells of an evidence-based program in Connecticut, Child FIRST, which trains parents how to protect their kids from the worst effects of stress. Bornstein reports that, “in a well-controlled study, children served by Child First were compared with those receiving usual social services and were found to be significantly less likely to have language problems and aggressive and defiant behaviors. Their mothers had markedly less depression and mental health problems, and the families were less likely to be involved with child protective services even three years later.”

A lot of it has to do with being “responsive and attentive” to a child (I’ll let you read the article to find out more) – what children themselves have said helps most when they’ve been subjected to harassment and bullying (see this). “By being emotionally available on a daily basis, parents can provide buffers that reduce the harmful physiological effects of high stress,” Bornstein writes.

The idea of “presence” – being present for our children, whether or not they’re “at risk,” whether we’re parents, teachers, or anyone else working with kids, and whether in person or in videochat – keeps surfacing as a powerful preventive and healing approach to the online and offline challenges of growing up.

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