What better way to mark Safer Internet Day than with clarity on the difference between risk and harm? Because, where online safety’s concerned, the two words have been used interchangeably – inaccurately – for years. It was EU Kids Online, after surveys of more than 25,000 9-16 year-olds across Europe, that first made the distinction, reporting that, “as with riding a bike or crossing the road, everyday activities online carry a risk of harm, but this harm is far from inevitable – indeed, it is fairly rare.”
Then one of the EU Kids Online (now Global Kids Online) founders, psychology professor Sonia Livingstone upped our game further when she pointed out the difference between calculating risk online and calculating risk offline, such as crossing the street. Experts can calculate the latter because they actually have data on how many people get hurt when crossing the street, but….
‘The risk of the risk’
“On the internet,” she wrote, “we do not know how many children are hurt or how severe are the consequences; there are no accident figures.” So online risk, where experts calculate “the probability of an encounter that might (or might not) result in harm” is different from offline risk like crossing a street. When we hear a report about “online risk,” Livingstone wrote, it’s “not the actual risk” they’re reporting. It’s “the risk of the risk,” she cautions. She used “sexting” as an example – see this post of mine for more on that.
Sociologist David Finkelhor puts the distinction another way. It’s important to understand the difference between “demonstrated risk” and “hypotheszed risk,” Dr. Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, wrote. “Smoking is a demonstrated risk; there is evidence that it causes a variety of harms. Going to meet someone who you only know from online – that is, at best, a hypothesized risk” – and he’s not even sure something should be called a hypothesized risk “just because a large group of people have anxieties about it,” he wrote. [For more, see the sidebar at the bottom of this page and Dr. Finkelhor on the “three alarmist assumptions” about youth online risk.]
‘Keep calm and…’
Why is that important? Because, when we put this understanding with two other things we’ve learned from the research – that not all youth are equally at risk online and that resilience can’t develop without some exposure to risk – we can be more effective in working with young Internet users. We can parent and educate them from our frontal cortexes rather than our amygdalas – ask them questions about what’s both fun and meaningful to them online as well as what’s annoying or creepy, as researchers Gianfranco Polizzi and Kate Gilchrist write in the “Parenting for a Digital Future” blog for Safer Internet Day.
A revelation for me a few years ago was learning about what may be the most effective Internet safety “tool” families could use. It’s more than low-tech – it’s no-tech – and it’s about developing the inner guidance system that steadies and helps us all navigate this fast-changing, complex time in which we all live. Check out what psychology professor Marshall Duke taught us all about creating, and grounding all family members in a “strong family narrative.”
So to all connected families, 4 powerful safeguards to keep in mind this Safer Internet Day: keeping calm, communicating with open hearts and minds, allowing resilience to develop, and growing those inner guidance systems.
- Beyond “friendship-driven”: About the serious informal learning teens do in social media
- “The 7 properties of safety in a digital age”
- About helping our kids find the right balance between the internal safeguards that will last a lifetime and the external ones that have been the main focus of the planet-wide Internet safety discourse to date
- About Dr. Finkelhor’s term “juvenoia”: why fear of the Internet and social media is overrated and his thoughts on why we’re so fearful