New Approach to Online Safety

More than a dozen years ago I wrote a booklet for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children called Child Safety on the Information Highway. Millions of copies are in print and countless people have seen it online. The first item in the child safety rules was “I will not give out personal information such as my address, telephone number, parents’ work address/telephone number, or the name and location of my school without my parents’ permission.” But new research suggests that my Rule No.1 may have been an overstatement.

I still don’t think anyone should give out their home address or phone number in a public forum, but it’s also important to face the reality of how today’s youth are using social networks and consider new data that suggest that as far as sexual solicitation is concerned, there are greater risks than disclosing personal information.


David Finkelhor
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center
at the University of New Hampshire, said that a recent study conducted by his center “suggests the need for a somewhat different approach to Internet safety education.” The study, said Finkelhor, “finds that giving out personal information online (one of the key prevention strategies emphasized in safety education) does not really increase a youth’s risk for sexual solicitation.” The emphasis, instead, should be about “making a lot of online acquaintances and talking with them about sex.” The study appeared in the February issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

The data is consistent with other recent findings that have caused the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to no longer focus on “stranger danger” but rather the types of interactions that children are having with other people, including both strangers and acquaintances.

The often quoted study found that one in seven young people who use the Internet “reported an unwanted interpersonal victimization in one year’s time” yet 55 percent of the youth reported having posted personal information. Of those, 80 percent gave out their age or year of birth, 61 percent gave out their real last name, telephone number, school name or home address and 33 percent posted a picture. In other words, giving out personal information is common practice, despite what I and other Internet safety advocates have been saying for years.

The authors also looked at other forms of potentially risky or inappropriate behavior and found that one in three had someone in their buddy list they didn’t know in person. They also found that 9 percent had harassed or embarrassed others online and 28 percent had made rude or nasty comments to someone on the Internet. They found that 5 percent of the sample said they had engaged in “talking about sex with someone they met online.” Specifically, 2.2 percent of the sample had one such encounter, 2 percent had two and only 1 percent had talked about sex online with a stranger 3 or more times.

When the researchers estimated the association between these risky behaviors with Internet victimization, they discovered that that talking about sex with someone known only online three or more times was associated with a 3-fold increase in the likelihood of being a victim. On the other hand, neither posting nor sending personal information was significantly related to being a victim.

What’s more, there is also a connection between a youth’s rude behavior and his or her chances of becoming a victim. “Youth who engage in online aggressive behavior by making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others are more than twice as likely to report online interpersonal victimization,” the study reports.

The authors also found that, “as the number of different types of behaviors online increased, so too did the odds of online interpersonal victimization.” Young people who engaged in four types of risky behavior “were 11 times more likely than those reporting none of the online behaviors to also report online interpersonal victimization.”It’s no surprise to me that kids who engage in sexual conversations with strangers they meet online are at a greater risk of becoming victims.While there is no activity that can ever justify victimizing another person, it is also true that there are certain activities that put us at greater risk, and talking about sex with a stranger is clearly one of them. I’m also not terribly surprised to find that engaging in rude or harassing behavior is also associated with becoming a victim. Showing a disregard for others is often associated with disregarding one’s own safety and well being.In a funny kind of way, I’m relieved to learn that giving out personal information may not be as dangerous as we once thought. For better or worse, we’re at a stage where millions of young people are publishing at least some information about themselves on social networking services. When I perused public profiles of teens on MySpace and other services about a year ago, I noticed lots of kids had posted photos and most disclosed the name of their school and many had other personal information, sometimes even last names. But both MySpace and the kids who use it are getting smarter.Last August MySpace introduced new privacy policies that make possible for anyone to maintain a private profile and, according to a 2006 study conducted by Dr. Justin at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Dr. Sameer Hinduja at Florida Atlantic University, kids are more privacy conscious than adults may realize.

The researchers found that 91 percent of teen profiles they looked at didn’t include full names and 40 percent of teens had private profiles. This tracks with a 2006 survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project that reports “66 percent of teens who have created a profile say that their profile is not visible to all internet users. They limit access to their profiles.”But there is still plenty of personal information out there. Patchin and Hinduja found that 57 percent of profiles had at least one photo and 9 percent had the teen’s full name. 81 percent revealed city they live in while 28 percent named the school they attend. Bottom line: kids are posting some personal information but most are being selective about it.
Both these studies suggest that we need to take another look at risk factors before we preach to our kids or start passing laws that restrict use of these services. The Wisconsin and Pew studies suggest that most kids are getting the message but that a significant minority is still revealing too much information. The New Hampshire study concludes that revealing personal information is less risky than other types of behavior.While pouring through research data can be murky, the take away for parents is relatively clear. Talk with your kids about their online behavior and focus on the big picture. Rather than make them paranoid of strangers, make them aware that how they interact with people can have an impact on how they are treated and whether they will likely be victimized. Keeping your personal information personal is still a very good idea, but knowing where to draw the boundaries in online conversations can go a long way towards keeping kids safe.

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