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The latest technopanic

No comparative study has been done, but – having recently traveled around the world for 10 months and talked with people involved with children’s online safety in a number of countries – I can tell you more than impressionistically that no country has experienced an extended technopanic about predators on the social Web quite the way the US has. The facts about online predation have been misrepresented in the US news media and by politicians purporting to champion child protection while fanning fears that not only draw attention away from rational consideration of both the problem and solutions but also potentially put youth at greater risk. How? Fear causes the kind of overreaction that breaks down parent-child communication at a time when it’s most needed – when kids can easily go “underground” in various ways, further from the informed, non-confrontational parental support that really can help them have positive online experiences.

Fear and hype also delay rational discussion out in the public arena. We are way behind the UK in even holding meetings on social-networking-industry best practices, much less drawn up a list (as the UK Home Office has). I would love to see a comparative multi-country study on child-protection measures, but there is other, more important social-media research to be done too.

So what’s a “technopanic”? It’s “a moral panic over contemporary technology,” as Alice Marwick at New York University ably describes it in “To catch a predator? The MySpace moral panic.” Several points in Marwick’s conclusion deserve highlighting: 1) “While online predators do not represent an epidemic or socially significant problem, child pornography and child abuse are important social issues that require attention. However, they are not caused by minors using MySpace, and preventing children from using social-networking sites will do nothing to end these problems”; 2) Inaccurate “negative coverage of technology frightens parents, prevents teenagers from learning responsible use, and fuels panics, resulting in misguided or unconstitutional legislation”; and 3) “Prohibiting teens from using MySpace will not prevent them from using the site, and instead will dissuade them from talking about any problems that occur. Taking a nuanced, informed, and gradual approach to the social integration of new technologies will do more to lessen harm and improve responsible user practice than a panicked, emotional response.” [See also a video report in eSchoolNews: “Online safety: Dispelling common myths.”]

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