This post first appeared on Forbes.com
The media is full of horror stories about online dangers, but — in all but a few categories — offline risk dwarfs its online equivalent.
Stranger danger vs. trusted adults
Let’s start with children. Every parent worries about their kids being harmed by strangers, but – whether offline or on — children are at far more risk from trusted adults than people they don’t know.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Facts, Myths and Statistics page, “in as many as 93% of child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the person that commits the abuse” and as many as 47% of the perpetrators are family or extended family members. And there are numerous cases of abuse by teachers, clergy, police officers, pediatricians and others kids trust. Based on actual risk statistics, instead of keeping kids offline, maybe we should keep them away from school, clinics, houses of worship and even their own homes.
We also worry about cyberbullying, but research from the Centers for Disease Control and other studies puts both the rate of cyberbullying below physical bullying. And, where cyberbullying does occur, it typically is an adjunct to bullying at school or other places where children gather. If you are concerned about cyberbullying, check out this parents’ guide I helped write.
Even sexting, which sometimes gets kids into legal trouble, has been blown out of proportion. As a general rule, I think it’s a bad idea to send out naked pictures of yourself — even to an intimate partner, but lots of people do and most of the time the pictures stay where they are intended and aren’t shared. But as problematic as it might be, it’s arguably a form of “safe sex” that — unlike real sex — can’t possibly cause a sexually transmitted disease or an unwanted pregnancy.
Like most parents, I worried about my kids’ physical safety, but I was a lot more worried about car and even bike accidents than about online dangers. Hundreds of thousands of children and teens are injured annually in car accidents.
And don’t forget school sports. Every year children are injured playing baseball, football, soccer and other sports. Yet most families encourage school sporting programs because of all the benefits. Social networking, texting and smartphone use also benefits and even though they are associated with some risk, the harms associated with these technologies are a lot lower than what can happen on an athletic field. According to Safe Kids Worldwide (not affiliated with my site, SafeKids.com), one in three children who plays a team sport is injured seriously enough to miss practice or games.
I’ve been a print and online journalist since the 1980′s but the most dangerous job I’ve ever had in the publishing industry was when I delivered newspapers by bicycle as a kid.
Although we were of course concerned about our kids’ online contacts, my wife and I were a lot more concerned about the friends they knew from school. Most, of course, were great, but I can think of a couple of who were pretty bad influences on our kids who, fortunately, had the discipline, resilience and self-respect to resist those negative influences. And there were also those non-friends, including the girls who bullied my daughter in middle school and the boys that bullied me in school, long before there even was an Internet.
And lest you think things have gotten worse since kids started going online, check out The Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of “Juvenoia” by Crimes Against Children Research Center director David Finkelhor who points out that since the early 90′s, the rates of sexual assault, unwanted pregnancy and even bullying, crimes committed by teens and teen suicide has gone down, not up.
Risk for adults
Adults face risks both online and off. For example, there are risks associated with shopping online, but there are also risks when you shop offline. Your wallet could be stolen, you could leave the credit card at the store, the clerk could clone your card or you could have a car accident on your way to or from the store.
Adults who date online also take risks, but so do those who meet their partners in bars and other locations.
Regardless of our age, there are privacy risks when going online or using smartphones and I would agree that online tracking, phone geolocation features and the hundreds of thousands of mobile apps do present some privacy concerns that we don’t have in the physical world. Still, there are plenty of reasons to worry about privacy in non-cyber settings, including school, workplaces, hospitals and even grocery stores that track what we buy. Failing to shred sensitive paper records remains a risk as does talking about private matters in public.
The bottom line is that we need to be concerned about all risks whether online or off, but we should thinking that technology related risks are any more pernicious or serious than ones we’ve been taking for centuries.
And, whether the risk comes from online or offline activities, we also need to remember that life can never be risk free. Everything we do has risks and the trick is to try to balance those risks while still enjoying life.