Of no surprise to regular readers of World of Psychology, 49 state attorneys general looked at the problem of children being solicited for sex online and concluded that the problem isn’t as big as previously thought. Why no surprise?
Because as we’ve noted here for years, anything to do with new technology or the Internet is often demonized. History is rife with examples of society reacting poorly, at first, to the introduction of significant, life-changing technologies. The cotton gin. The telephone. The automobile. TV. Video games. Computers. Cell phones. The Internet. We place all of our blame on the agent of change for causing problems, when either the problems are less serious than we thought (as in this case), or the problems are a characteristic of change itself.
People generally fear changes brought about in society by new technology. Such changes often have the ability to reconfigure our lives or lifestyle, with or without our permission. Most of us try and accept the changes in stride, learn what we can about how to incorporate the new technologies into our lives, and pass that along to our children.
The new report suggests that online threats that we fear most are not as prevalent as TV shows and sweeps-week news stories would have us believe. The biggest threats to children online are not sexual solicitation or harassment, but plain old bullying, most often by their peers or other kids they know from school. (Here’s some advice for dealing with bullies.)
The new report also found that children are not equally at risk online:
Those who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives. The psychosocial makeup of and family dynamics surrounding particular minors are better predictors of risk than the use of specific media or technologies.
In other words, stop blaming the Internet. Being a good and responsible parent is more important than whether your child has ever used IM or surfs the web.
Of course the report acknowledges that the Internet has brought a conduit into the homes of most Americans, and that conduit can be used for good or for evil, for encyclopedic information or for porn:
Unwanted exposure to pornography does occur online, but those most likely to be exposed are those seeking it out, such as older male minors. Most research focuses on adult pornography and violent content, but there are also concerns about other content, including child pornography and the violent, pornographic, and other problematic content that youth themselves generate.
The upshot is that yes, some unwanted contact occurs online, but not nearly at the levels or severity as previously thought. Most social networks used by children are used in a pro-social and positive manner.
Not surprisingly either, the task force that produced the report could find no simple way to verify a child’s age. Since most children have no ID card, driver’s license or other third-party verification of their age, there simply isn’t a reliable way to do this today.
As a parent, this may let you sleep a little more soundly at night. Don’t stop being vigilant over your child’s Internet use, but maybe don’t worry as much about this particular concern. Children should still be taught smart Internet surfing and online contact skills (e.g., Don’t IM with strangers), but most places online remain fairly safe from your child being solicited for unwanted contact.
Read the NYTimes article: Report Finds Online Threats to Children Overblown
Read the full report: Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies