It seems that not a day goes by without hearing about dangers lurking on the Internet. Some of these concerns are very real, such as threats to reputation or bullying. Other issues, such as the hype about online “predators,” are mostly imaginary. This information will help you separate fact from fiction when it comes to issues of Internet safety.
Types of Online Threats
There are several different types of potential threats that children may face during their online activities. Here are some of the most prevalent and/or most discussed:
Internet Danger #1: Threats to a child’s reputation (or your own)
The biggest threat to your child’s welfare doesn’t come from others…it comes from the child themselves. One of the biggest flaws in the use of the Internet as a social tool is that what’s posted in cyberspace can get out of hand quickly and be extremely hard to get rid of. Combine this with a child’s immature judgment or an adolescent’s poor impulse control, and you have a recipe with the potential for disaster. Because of this, protecting your child is not about dealing with outside threats, but involves teaching your kids how to engage the Internet and use it responsibly.
One study published in a 2009 issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine illustrates the potential for problems. The authors surveyed kids’ MySpace pages, and found that 41% had mentions of substance abuse, 24% pictures or descriptions of sex, and 14% depicted violence. (Szabo, 2009) We understand that teens will be teens, and that these issues are part of an adolescent’s life. But posting these hot-button topics on the Internet can have very real consequences when it comes to people who are far more judgmental than us. So it’s important teens understand what can be expressed in public versus what needs to be shared privately.
Internet threat #2: The danger of Internet Bullying
In terms of inherent danger to your child’s safety and welfare, this is probably the biggest. The damaging effects of bullying can be severe. Bullying is a form of child abuse, and although society discounts verbal or emotional abuse as insignificant, studies repeatedly show that emotional abuse tends to be more destructive than physical or sexual abuse. (GCF, 2012) Compared to the typically non-violent molestation parents worry so much about, bullying is usually substantially more hurtful and typically causes more damage. (ibid) It’s also a more real-world concern in terms of life-death risks. Hundreds of teen suicides every year are directly tied to bullying. In comparison, we know of one documented case of a teen being murdered by an Internet predator in the entire history of the Internet. Put in perspective, at current rates it will take another 10,000 to 20,000 years for as many kids to die of predators linked to the Internet as will die this year alone from suicides linked to bullying.
Humiliation or bullying that occurs over the Internet can be especially destructive. The danger is also common enough to warrant legitimate concern: Almost all teens say they have witnessed online cruelty, and surveys have found that anywhere from 15% to 33% of youth admit to either perpetrating or being victimized by online bullying. Making matters worse, children are also reluctant to let their parents know that they are being cyber-bullied. One survey found that only 5% of adolescents say they would tell their parents if they were being cyberbullied, and the primary reason for this is that they fear their parents might overreact and restrict their access to social networking sites or otherwise make matters worse. (You can read more about cyber bullying in our Online bullying Book on www.keepyourchildsafe.org/bullying)
Internet danger #3: Privacy concerns
Most people don’t realize the degree to which they are being tracked every time they peruse through cyberspace. It’s been a point of contention among privacy advocates for many years now. When you log onto the Internet, you do so through an ISP number that is like a phone number, which identifies the line where that computer is calling from. From there, the sites you visit will typically record your ISP#, and some may install what are referred to in computer jargon as “cookies” (little pieces of code) to track you further.
Many cookies are relatively innocuous. For example, many free sites earn their revenues through commissions from other companies when they refer you to a product. When you click through to one of these sites, it may install a cookie on your computer that keeps track of how you got there, so that if you leave but come back later and buy something, the site that referred you can still earn their commission. They are only tracking you as it pertains to visits on their site. Other cookies, however, are far more intrusive, and will follow you around the Internet, tracking everything you do in order to send information to the company that installed the cookie. Through such methods, companies are able to gather a large amount of data about you. This data is then combined with other data from real-world purchases or merged with additional data from credit card companies in order to assemble the best profile of your personal habits and buying patterns.
A few cases have shown just how extensive this profiling can be. In one recent example, Target drew the ire of an irate father who was upset they had sent his young teenage daughter advertisements for baby products. Based on seemingly unrelated purchases and web searches, the computer algorithms had determined this customer might be pregnant. After a talk with his daughter, Dad was forced to do an about face: she was indeed pregnant. It turned out that Target was able to decipher this girl’s pregnancy based on data they had collected about her browsing habits well before her father knew about it.
Despite the creepiness of it all, to this point in time, the concerns are mostly theoretical. Most of the companies who gather this information couldn’t care less about you as a person, they just want to better figure out how to get you to open up your wallet. Yet there is also tremendous potential for abuse is the data being gathered, and every oppressive privacy invasion or control tactic in the world has started in the same way: just trust us, we won’t abuse this power, we have your best interests in mind. Several journalists have demonstrated that simply by putting enough of the data pieces together, it’s quite possible to identify the person behind the ISP profile with considerable accuracy. This means that a determined person (or company) could potentially dig up every personal web search you’ve ever made. There are a myriad of ways such a privacy breach could be misused.
More concerning than companies having this information is the government having it. The Edward Snoden leaks revealed that Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and all the other major web companies have permitted the US government to build a backdoor on their systems, allowing them to cypen off everything about you and your kids, and store it in a massive data base center they built in Utah. Put bluntly: this practice is a threat to democracy itself and should alarm everyone. Such data is already being used to swing elections (by delivering messages that exploit your personal fears and insecurities as revealed online), and it gives those in power a way to blackmail or humiliate anyone in the country, including political opponents. Now the government knows if your teen is suicidal, if she struggles with an eating disorder, or if you take anti-depressants or anti-psychotics. They know if your wife is cheating on you, or if you sent your family an abusive email 10 years ago. They know if you’re an alcoholic or a consumer of online porn. If you ever get in the way of government officials (like if you’re a journalist, or anti-war, or an animal rights activist, or if you raise a stink about government abuse) every detail of your life is just a click away.
In the real world, large companies will always serve their own profit interests at the expense of the customer, governments OF ALL TYPES will ALWAYS abuse their power, and our world in general (in case you haven’t noticed) is not operated with the interest of human welfare in mind; it’s built around what is necessary to best exploit humans such as you and your child for commercial gain. So there are very legitimate privacy concerns about all this data collecting, and you don’t have to be a terrorist or drug dealer to worry about it.
Internet Danger #4: The threat of online predators
Just about everything regarding this safety myth is either wrong or distorted. Studies conducted by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, found absolutely no evidence that online predators were stalking or abducting victims through social networking sites. He also states that ongoing studies show social networking doesn’t in any way increase the risk of sexual victimization. (Jayson, 2009) Keep in mind that this information is coming from a man whose organization and livelihood relies heavily on sexual abuse grants, and someone who has spent most of his career hyping up sexual abuse. So the fact that even he and his colleagues reject this myth tells you something about how baseless it is.
We know of one such case of a child being killed by an apparent Internet predator: In February 2012, 16-year-old Angela Allen disappeared one day from her home. Her body was later found on the property of a man she is believed to have had an online relationship with. Police were able to track the suspect through the girl’s online accounts and text messages. To our knowledge (and we monitor safety issues closely), this is the only case of a child being kidnapped or killed as a consequence of encountering a true predator online.
So although it’s not impossible for such a thing to happen, it’s extremely rare. Since such cases are far more likely to occur from encounters in the real-world, cyberspace is actually much safer in this regard. As for younger kids in the under 12 category, there’s never been a recorded case of someone using the Internet to kidnap a child, and I honestly doubt we will ever see such a case.
Now let’s talk about what DOES happen. It’s not at all uncommon for adolescents (and sometimes preteens as well) to flirt or engage in sexually explicit exchanges with adults they meet online, and sometimes this leads to actual encounters. However, these are not kids being “preyed on” by “predators.” The reality is that almost all youth who end up in a sexual encounter with an adult they met online do so willingly and by choice. This is adult-child sexual contact, which is illegal under U.S. law, but it’s a far cry from predation, and is not in and of itself harmful. Some kids may seek such experiences because they’re naturally attracted to older people; some because an online friendship morphs into something else. Some do so because it may be considered a status symbol among their peers for a 12-year-old girl to score with a college guy. And some do so because they feel awkward, insecure, or unattractive around their own peers, and they meet someone who makes them feel attractive and good inside. Some may come from broken homes and revel in the attention such a relationship provides. Whatever the reason, teenage relationships do not always conform to our expectations, and it is teens themselves, not the Internet, that is at issue here.
Some youth may indeed be taken advantage of by some of these people; used for sex and then dumped. We’ve even seen an isolated case or two of what appears to be date rape from someone they first met online. Yet none of these things seem to be any more common on the Internet than they are in the real world. It’s important to remember that teens can be used or taken advantage of by people they meet offline as well, and by peers their own age just as readily as by someone significantly older. These are not threats caused by the Internet, and we’ve seen absolutely no evidence that there is a problem with “predators” stalking children online.
Internet danger #5: Exposure to harmful stimulus via the Internet
What about all the unsavory things children might be exposed to online? Here are some of the potentially worrisome things children could encounter, and how they stack up as an overall threat:
Exposure to sex or pornography:
It is natural that teens are going to be curious about a lot of things. Sex is one of those things. But whether it is healthy for children to be exposed in such an unnatural online graphic world to a lot of pornography is an open question. On one hand, sensuality should be promoted as healthy, and there is absolutely no evidence pornography in and of itself is harmful. (Wenner-Moyer, 2011) That said, the type of sexuality depicted in online pornography may give kids a distorted view of sex, especially since this exposure occurs in a vacuum, with little real world knowledge to counteract it. Pornography is an artificial substitute; one that is often wrapped in a false pretense and devoid of positive emotion. There are known cases with adults becoming ‘hooked’ on viewing pornography, and thus have damaged their adult relationships or broken up their marriages. If it can be a danger for adults, it can certainly be a danger to children and teens.
Exposure to violence:
Although violence is a routine aspect of media entertainment, violence on the Internet often depicts actual, real-world events, often in gory detail. Because of its more realistic nature, some worry it may do more to encourage violent behavior among teens. Unlike sexuality, violence is a destructive, antisocial behavior, and parents should try to limit a child’s exposure to it as much as possible.
Exposure to destructive messages:
There are also some other potentially harmful ideas out there, such as sites which glorify suicide, sites that are pro-anorexia, sites that promote illegal piracy of music or books, or other cyber communities where harmful behavior or problematic messages are promoted.
Parents needn’t dwell on these risks, just be aware that such sites are out there. You should stay involved in what your kids do online and express an interest in places they enjoy visiting. Ask them to share their favorite YouTube videos, or otherwise follow your child’s interests. Don’t forget: the Internet’s diversity can also offer valuable teaching moments or opportunities for discussion.