It’s Time to Stop Letting Fear Interfere with Youth Online Freedom

By Larry Magid

“Authority, given its common style, becomes increasingly incapable of commanding respect from the young for any reason save the fear on which is it ultimately based.”
Michael Rossman
“On Learning and Social Change,” 1972

I’ve been an “Internet safety advocate” since I wrote the first widely circulated booklet on the subject back in 1994, but I’ve come around to thinking it’s time for Internet safety to make way for freedom and youth empowerment.

When I started writing on about Internet safety, I was genuinely worried about pornography, predators and other dangers associated with technology, but over time, my focus has shifted. I’m now far more worried about the subjugation of youth, especially now that there is plenty of research to show that the vast majority of young people are smart in their use of the Internet and mobile technology., an organization I co-run with Anne Collier, continues to offer Internet safety advice but is increasingly working in the area of youth empowerment. That’s why we subtitled our, Online Safety 3.0 booklet,  Empowering and Protecting Youth. In her blog posts at, Anne has consistently argued that Internet safety can only be protective if it respects young people and promotes youth agency.

In a sense I’ve come full circle back to my student activism days of the 60’s and 70’s when I was writing and traveling around the country advocating for free universities and an end to authoritarian education. Back then no-one in my circles was advocating keeping young people away from any form of content and – in the wake of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement – the last thing any of us wanted was to muzzle young people’s free expression.

Yet today there are those — in the name of “Internet safety”– who do just that. There are several companies promoting Internet filters — even for teens. And even young people whose home computers and mobile devices remain unfiltered, typically have such restrictions placed on devices at their schools.  And we’re not just talking about porn filters. A very high percentage of American schools – including middle schools and high schools – block access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter. There are also productsdesigned to monitor what teens are doing online including some that capture every keystroke and mouse click as well as all incoming and outgoing text messages and cell phone records.

Schools and free expression

Schools are blocking the very media that young people are using to express themselves and communicate with others. It’s also one of the ways people learn and is the virtual gathering place for today’s social activists. Schools that block social media today are no different than schools that blocked political speech during the sixties. Today’s educators may think they’re protecting students and keeping them on track just as some adults in the sixties argued that political speech — including protesting the Vietnam war and advocating for civil rights — was an unnecessary distraction for students of that generation.

The fact is that the open Internet has been used by young people since the early nineties and those early digital natives — now in their mid to late 20′s — seem to be doing OK, despite the ready availability of online porn, drug sites, hate sites and sites advocating all sorts of social evils. My own kids — now 26 and 28 — had unfettered access to the Internet during their teens and both — along with nearly all their peers– are well adjusted normal young adults.

Edge cases

I realize that filters can be helpful for young children who might accidentally stumble onto disturbing sites and there will always some teens who need an extraordinary measures to protect them. There will be a small percentage of kids who bully and there will be some who lack the resilience to deal with the bullies they may encounter. But just as bullies at school don’t justify denying all children freedom of assembly, cyberbullying (which is less prevalent) doesn’t justify restricting online access.

Just as there are high-risk adults, there are some kids whose risk taking or aggressive behavior calls for extraordinary supervision or monitoring, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. Adolescent is a time to test limits, hopefully in a safe and supportive home environment.  The majority of youth are capable of making good decisions but adults — especially parents – still have an important role to play.  We can have a big impact by listening to, speaking with and supporting the young people in our lives and have an even more lasting impact by serving as good role models.


Study falsely reinforces fear for parents of online youth

This post is adapted from Larry Magid’s column that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on September 5, 2011

by Larry Magid

Crimes Against Children Research Center Director David Finkelhor has talked and written about “juvenoia,” observing that some people assert that there are “features of the Internet that increase risk for young people above what they already encounter or what they encounter in other environments.”

We saw that a few years ago when the TV program “To Catch a Predator” spread fear that online children and teens were at increased risk of sexual molestation. A rash of news stories appeared about predator danger and politicians called for new child protection laws, yet every credible research project on the subject found no demonstrable increased predator risk, compared to the risk children face from people they know in the real world.

Alarming study

Now parents have something else to be afraid of. A recent report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University said that teens ages 12-17 who watch certain TV shows or who spend time on social networking sites like Facebook and My Space, or who have seen pictures on social networking sites of kids getting drunk, passed out, or using drugs, are likelier to smoke, drink or use drugs. Or, as their news release colorfully put it, “free-for-all world of Internet expression, suggestive television programming and what-the-hell attitudes put teens at sharply increased risk of substance abuse.”

The survey found that youths 12 to 17 years old who spend time online in a typical day, even just a minute a day, are five times likelier to use tobacco, three times likelier to use alcohol and twice as likely to use marijuana.

The survey also found that teens who watch “reality shows like ‘Jersey Shore,’ ‘Teen Mom,’ or ’16 and Pregnant’ or any teen dramas like ‘Skins’ and ‘Gossip Girl,’ ” are more likely to use tobacco, alcohol and marijuana.

Correlation does not prove causation

The results of this survey might be alarming if it weren’t for the fact that teen use of social networking is the norm, not the exception. The study found that 70 percent of teens use social networking sites, so the risk of those awful behaviors attributed to the evils resulting from going online apply to seven out of 10 teens.

Although my skills are a bit rusty, I know a thing or two about surveys. I studied and taught survey research in my former academic career and designed and analyzed numerous surveys. One of the first things I taught my undergraduates was not to confuse correlation with causation. Even if it’s true that the kids who never use Facebook are less likely to abuses substances, the survey doesn’t tell us why that’s the case. There could be all sorts of other explanations, such as very strict parents. Or perhaps the same traits that cause that minority of kids to shy away from social networking are the same traits that make them less likely to use drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

And it’s not as if kids who do use social networking have a higher rate of use than kids in general. The percentages of online kids who were found to use drugs, tobacco and alcohol were about the same as those found in other national surveys where social networking use wasn’t a factor. If we are to draw any conclusions about this report, it would be that it says more about that 30 percent minority that’s not online. And as concerned as we should be about substance use, has anyone studied whether those kids might have equally troubling problems, including possibly social isolation?

Exaggerating danger doesn’t lower risk

What concerns me about this study is that it raises fears that are both unsubstantiated and not actionable. What are we supposed to do, turn back time and force our kids to abandon Facebook? The reality is that social networking is a part of most of our lives and what we need to do is not pull away from the technology, but make sure that kids (and adults too) know how to use it appropriately. We all need to learn to make our own conscious decisions and not be manipulated by what we see online, in the media or in advertising.

The other problem with fear-mongering reports is that they often don’t change behavior. A seminal paper on fear messaging by Kim White at Michigan State University found that “when assessing threat, the audience considers severity, or the seriousness of it, as well as their susceptibility, or the likelihood that it will happen to them.” In other words, kids who use social networking are likely to ignore the results of this study just as they ignore stupid and potentially dangerous things they find online.

Kids need guidance and education, but they don’t need to be bubble-wrapped. And parents need to take a deep breath and avoid panicking every time someone comes up with a scary study or an alarming news report.

More resources

My co-director Anne Collier two part series (part one and part two) on “juvenoia”and Anne’s analysis of the CASA youth survey

My slide presentation “Do fear and exaggeration increase risk?”

Family Online Safety Institute’s Stephen Balkam’s  take on the study, Be Afraid, Very Afraid


‘Juvenoia,’ Part 1: Why Internet fear is overrated