Stephen Balkam: The politics of fear

Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, confronts those who instill fear for their own advantage.

By Stephen Balkam

 I have been thinking a lot about fear and how much it permeates our discussions and decisions in the online world, particularly regarding how we talk to our kids about possible dangers on the Net.

I had the huge privilege of attending two Aspen Institute events a couple of weeks ago, both of which addressed the issue of harmful content and parental fears about what their kids are exposed to online. It occurred to me that we are dealing with a range of fears – some real, some imagined.

Some TV programs, such as Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator,” have fed into a raw nerve of fear among many parents that their children are constantly and imminently in danger of being lured into sexual entrapment by an online stranger. The reality is far different. According to police figures, the vast majority of child sex abuses occur with adults known to the child – oftentimes their own family members. The problem with programs such as “Predator” is that they artificially (and some would say unethically) stage an entrapment of adult males seeking sex in a way that barely reflects what is really going on. But the program has been a great “success,” delivering large ratings and fearful viewers grateful for the reassuring ads that interrupt the program at highly dramatic moments. Mercifully, it would appear that this program’s shelf life is over, given the recent controversies surrounding the “consulting” organization, Perverted Justice.

Parents are right to be concerned about issues such as cyberbullying. According to recent research by the Pew Internet & American Life project, a third of teenagers report having been bullied online, and that figure reaches half of older teenage girls. What kids post to social-networking sites about themselves, their fleeting thoughts and their risqué photos should also raise alarm bells with parents.

While it is important to raise these concerns with our kids and talk about them regularly, we should avoid overreacting or creating such a climate of fear that kids will stop telling us what’s really going on.

Politicians, of course, use fear to justify taking draconian steps to “save our children” from the menace of online dangers. We’ve seen recent attempts to ban access to social-networking sites at schools, a government-run labeling system for “sexually explicit” Web sites and various other attempts at legislating content. Rather than using fear as a motivator for governments to act, we should insist on a nationally conceived and locally delivered education campaign that helps to raise the levels of awareness of both digital literacy (how computers work) and media literacy (how to make sense of what we see and hear online).We need well-informed and empowered parents to help them navigate this new world – a world more familiar (and less scary) to their seemingly fearless offspring.

Stephen Balkam is CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute.


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