The only way we can have solid, progressive parent-child and public discussions about children’s online safety is if we can keep the facts in mind when we read the latest news about predators in Facebook and MySpace – facts based on consistent, peer-reviewed academic research about online risk. So here are the key facts to keep in mind:
Even one case is far too many, but parents deserve to know that – no matter how many news reports they read about predators in social network sites, including this week’s – the risk of online kids being exploited by a stranger in such a site is statistically extremely low, and even more unlikely for healthy teens with engaged parents. Parents may find it helpful, too, to read such reports critically – maybe with their online teens, asking them about their own experiences, if any, with strangers in social sites and what they do about them.
Consider, too, the possibility that there may be other interests in addition to children’s safety involved in criticizing a whole body of research and keeping predator fears fanned, including political and financial interests (see Washington policy analyst Adam Thierer’s commentary and this New York Times article quoting the CEO of a company with significant financial interests in promoting the adoption of age verification of online kids, a serious privacy issue). As CNET blogger Caroline McCarthy put it, “Shock-and-awe press tactics aren’t the way to go, especially because threats on the Web are much more complicated than they may appear.”