Youth online risk: Accurate reporting

By Anne Collier

It’s always refreshing to see solid reporting where online kids and parenting are concerned! The main takeaway from this Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune article is that, yes, social media represent a new challenge for parents, but we can usually handle it just fine and here’s how. It tells of how a local couple with six children of ages ranging from 6 to 19 – all but the youngest of whom “have a cell phone with Internet access” – feel they can deal with most of it but can always ask their eldest to explain anything they don’t understand.” The only thing the dad and the reporter aren’t too clear on was what happened in the Megan Meier case (see this blog post of mine). But the advice from an expert the reporter interviewed – Sue Dowling of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation – is top-notch, and I hope parents will read it all. For example, though she certainly understands parental fears of online predators, she cites academic research showing that the risk is very low to most kids, those who don’t actively engage in risky online behavior such as talking about sex with strangers in a variety of places online or exhibit other known risk factors in their offline lives (see this Fact Sheet from the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC) at the University of New Hampshire). We learned in our work on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force that not all young people are equally at risk of sexual exploitation, those who are most at risk online are those most at risk offline, and a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environment are better predictors of risk than any technology he or she uses.

The school environment part is huge – that and how its members treat each other is the biggest predictor of the online risk that affects the most kids: cyberbullying. But they’re just as much predictors of young people’s wellbeing offline; they can hardly be separated, which is why behavior, not technology, is the main issue. Stay tuned for more next week….

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