Hi Folks. As you know, I’m the Educational Technology Director of WiredSafety. WiredSafety was a member of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) that was formed last year, as part of an agreement between 49 Attorneys General and MySpace. I participated as one member of the WiredSafety team. The views express here are my personal views and not necessarily those of WiredSafety.
The ISTTF was run out of the Berkman Center at Harvard and headed by John Palfry who oversaw the activities of an amazing group of industry leaders, technology experts, Internet safety non-profits, and some of the leading researchers in the country. We were tasked to look into technology measures to keep children safe on social networking sites with a focus on finding reliable age verification technology. The final report was issued on January 14th, with headlines and mixed reactions from all quarters. I’d like to take a few minutes to give you my personal view of the situation at it stands.
If you have read the reports, most of the headlines focus on the finding that the Internet may not be a dangerous as the mainstream media has been presenting it and that cyberbullying and peer to peer confrontations pose more of a risk than sexual predators. The report indicated that most teens who want to be safe are safe, but there is a small population of at-risk youth that can fall prey to predators. In general, it stated that these teens, because of a combination of psychological and family life conditions, would be equally at risk off line as they are online.
Additionally, we concluded that while there were some technologies that provided ways for parents to keep their children safe, there was no technology that would scale up and be effective for the general population. For example, there were biometric devices that would sense physiological characteristics to insure the person using the computer was a child. This is something that an individual parent could do, but hardly something that could be mandated by legislation or implemented on a large scale.
The conclusions had the effect of upsetting some of the Attorneys General who have a quite different and understandable perception that is based on the significant number of arrests made through sting operations. They feel that the ISTTF has presented an erroneous picture of the situation. This is unfortunate, because I feel that a close reading and careful analysis of the report actually shows that both sides are describing very much the same situation from different perspectives.
It is much like the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men are asked to describe an elephant. One touches the trunk, one the leg, one the ear, etc. Each person describes the elephant from their personal perspective, but none of them sees the elephant as he is.
Let’s take a closer look at the elephant, or in this case the children who we want to protect. The ISTTF had no accurate way to determine exactly how many youth fell into the at-risk category, but the most commonly used figure was 3% of the online teens. To some that may indeed seem like a small sample, but let’s do some very simple math.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 42 million children between the ages of 10 and 19. It is estimated that more than 90% of those teens are online. If 3% of those teens are at risk, that means we have over a million at-risk teens. That number is certainly not in conflict with the arrest figures and the perception of the AG’s. On the other hand it is not in conflict with the idea that cyberbullying and peer to peer interactions are a very serious problem.
Cyberbullying has resulted in suicides and in that larger majority of cases it results in other psychological trauma, absenteeism, physical symptoms and a whole spectrum or reactions. Additionally, it impacts a much larger portion of our youth population. Even the most conservative estimate is that 30% of the youth population suffers from cyberbullying.
At WiredSafety, we conduct thousands of information surveys of students and our figures, because they are done without parent and in unthreatening settings, indicate that 85% of teens have experience or participated in online bullying in the past year.
If we now look at the bullies, the bullied, and the sexual predator victims as a group, all indications (anecdotal) are that the vast majority of sexual predator victims and potential victims are likely to either be cyberbullies or cyberbullying victims. So we aren’t talking apples and oranges here. When we talk about the bullying problem, we find that the potential sexual predator victims are part of that same pool.
The AG’s want and rightly need to focus on getting the predators off-line, The can also work with the industry, parents, community, and educators to deal with the cyberbullying problem which as we know from the Megan Meier case, can become a legal issue.
Government policy makers can put in place legislation that helps identify the at-risk group. Industry can fund and train online moderators and counselors, as well as working with the online community to mobilize and report abuse.
Finally and equally important, it is need for education on all fronts. Parents, teachers, and students, especially those who don’t have online experience and technical savvy, must be aware of the risks, the danger signs, and the appropriate actions to take when they encounter them. While well thought out and effective legislation is important, the real problem is a behavioral one, it is education and intervention that is most needed and will do the most good.
Like the blind men, AG’s and the ISTTF are seeing different parts of the same problem. If combine the views and use it to create a bigger picture, I think we have solid footing from which to move forward with first steps being additional research and an action plan to address the problems.
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