Nancy Willard: Stop the Internet fear-mongering

Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, says the excessive “fear mongering” in online-safety messages is counterproductive to keeping kids safe.

by Nancy Willard

I am the author of a book for parents on Internet safety, Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly. So one might think that I’d be inclined to engage in some fear-mongering about the Internet – just to generate sales. I decline to do so. In fact, I rewrote the press release the publisher prepared for my book to take out language that promoted Internet fear.

So let’s discuss some of the most common forms of Internet fear-mongering.

Highest on my list is the statement: “One in seven young people have been sexually solicited online.” When I spoke at the California Cyber Safety Summit last February, I asked the audience how many of them thought this meant that one in seven young people had received communications from the kinds of men shown on NBC Dateline’s To Catch a Predator series and were in a dangerous situation. Most of the hands in the audience were raised.

In fact, the study from which this data comes, conducted by the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC), asked about a variety of acts in its survey questions, including: “situations where someone on the Internet attempted to get them to talk about sex when they did not want to or asked them unwanted sexual questions about themselves.” This is essentially sexual harassment – a problem, but a different problem from the concern of sexual predation. Predators do not tend to initiate relationships by sending “unwanted” communications.

Of the teens who were “sexually solicited,” 43% identified the “solicitor” as another teen, 30% were identified as someone 18-25 (which could have included teens because teens often lie about their age), 9% were identified as adults, and 18% as age unknown. More significantly, 69% of the young people indicated they did not report the incident to anyone because it was “not serious enough.” The major finding has been used to generate fear. But the detailed findings have not received any public attention.

Then we have Dateline’s To Catch a Predator, which aired seven times last year. Are all teens in danger of being seduced by the kinds of men who got caught in this sting? No. A representative from a group called Perverted Justice makes arrangements to meet these men by communicating in online groups where people meet to arrange for sexual hook-ups. So what teens are in danger? The teens who are spending time in such online groups.

Another type of fear-mongering relates to the potential that predators will use personal information posted to stalk potential victims. In another study conducted by the CACRC of situations involved in arrests, all of the young people met with the adult predators knowing they were meeting with men to engage in sex. They were not stalked or deceived. Some were likely “groomed” (manipulated over time into meeting for sex). But some actually may have been seeking such relationships.

There are many important reasons for young people to be much more careful about the kinds of material they are posting online. Posting personal contact information can lead to receiving more spam or possibly facing identity theft. Some teens are posting material that can damage their reputation and future education and career possibilities. Sometimes teens post material that creates the perception they are vulnerable or interested in meeting people to engage in sex – material that can lead to contact by a predator. Posting personal-interest information, including what school you go to and what team you play on, is highly unlikely to lead to any risks.

The problem is that when we tell young people “do not post personal information online” and link this safety guideline to fear of predators, young people are going to have difficulties distinguishing what material they should and shouldn’t post and why.

My greatest concern about the fear-mongering we’re seeing is that it is having a negative impact on relations between teens and adults when it comes to talking about the Internet. Sometimes teens will get into difficult situations online and really should talk with an adult. But teens know that adults are primed to overreact – because of all of the fear-mongering. When adults overreact, they can mishandle the situation and make matters worse. Or they might restrict a teen’s access – which is akin to “excommunication” for today’s totally connected teen. Internet fear-mongering is stopping important dialogue.

So let’s get “real.” Young people face risks associated with Internet use – just as they do in real life. And sometimes they do not make good choices – just as in real life. Younger children must be protected when they use the Internet – just as we hold their hands when crossing a street. But as tweens and teens expand their online activities, they need to have an accurate understanding of the risks. They must know how to prevent themselves from getting into risky situations, know when they are at risk, and effectively respond, including knowing when to ask for adult assistance. Further, they need to know how to make good choices online.

Nancy Willard is executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use and author of Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly.

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