named US host for Safer Internet Day

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Washington, D.C., November 6, 2013–Safer Internet Day, which has been celebrated throughout the world for the last 10 years, is about to get a big boost in the United States. has been appointed by INSAFE and the European Commission as the US host for the annual celebration, which happens on the second Tuesday of each February (this coming one: Feb. 11, 2014).

A well-established campaign that’s now marked in more than 100 countries, Safer Internet Day gained official recognition in the US in late 2012, when the Department of Homeland Security signed a joint agreement with the European Commission to work together to make the Internet better for youth.

The theme of this coming year’s event is “Let’s create a better Internet together.”

ConnectSafely’s plan is to make the US celebration of Safer Internet Day a highly collaborative project, with supporters from the Internet industry and partners representing a broad array of youth-serving organizations. We are launching a website (, organizing an awareness-raising campaign and planning an event in Washington DC on February 11.

“Our goal is not just to provide safety advice but to recognize all the great things that people of all ages are doing online,” said co-director Larry Magid. “It’s time for policy makers and the media to realize that the vast majority of young people are using social media and mobile technology safely and responsibly.”

“We plan to celebrate all the great things young people are doing to make the Internet a better place – or the world a better place with the help of the Internet,” said co-director Anne Collier, “so we’re asking them to tweet about, talk about it in a short video or podcast, post about it on Facebook or send us an email via “On February 11, we hope families will talk over dinner about how they’re making the Internet better,” added Collier. “And we’re encouraging parents to listen to and learn from their kids.”

“We are delighted that ConnectSafely will lead the US celebration of Safer Internet Day in February,” said Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOS). “The Day is well established in Europe and elsewhere and it’s time we get behind this effort here in the States.”

Microsoft is the “anchor” supporter with additional support from Google, Facebook, Sprint, Trend Micro and Twitter. The steering committee is made up of the leading non-profits in the Internet safety space, including Committee for Children, Common Sense Media, Family Online Safety Institute, iKeepSafe, Internet Education Foundation, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the National Cyber Security Alliance.

The announcement is being made today at the Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference in Washington DC.

About ConnectSafely

ConnectSafely is a non-profit organization offering research-based resources about online well-being and digital literacy for parents, teens, educators, advocates and policymakers. Find us at and

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Family Online Safety Institute tackles ID theft and dangers of ‘Internet of things’

By Larry Magid

Washington, DC: Every fall around this time, people from the tech industry, government, non-profit groups and academia gather in Washington for the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) annual conference. Over the last few years, the conference has dealt with a wide variety of issues including cyberbullying, reputation management, security and keeping kids away from inappropriate content. Although “family online safety” can apply to just about anyone, many of the sessions focus on young people’s use of connected technology.

This year’s theme is Connect, Share, Empower.  And, as the theme implies, the conference organizers are bullish on the positive aspects of the Internet and mobile technology.  FOSI is a membership organization made up and funded by tech companies including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and others. As co-director of, I am on FOSI’s advisory board and will be moderating a panel on creating trust in social networks and virtual worlds at this year’s conference. ConnectSafely also receives support from some of these companies.

ID theft, fraud and how kids are protecting themselves

One of the first sessions at this year’s conference will be a research report on teen identity theft, fraud, security and steps teens are taking to protect themselves. One thing many people may not realize is that young people – including preteens – are subject to identity theft because most have perfect credit records. Some teens only find out their ID was stolen when they apply for their first student loans or credit cards. Teens are subject to the same security issues as adults but there are some special situations that affect teens and kids like bogus fan sites that plant malware on their device. I recently co-authored a free booklet on this issue called A Parents’ Guide to Cybersecurity, that you can download  at

Likely good news about teens

And – though I’m writing this ahead of the conference – I’m pretty sure that the researchers will have some positive things to say about what teens are doing to protect themselves. A study conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society found that “few teens embrace a fully public approach to social media,” and many teens “take an array of steps to restrict and prune their profiles.” Sixty percent of teen Facebook users keep their profiles private, and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings. The study also found that teens take other steps to shape their reputation, manage their networks, and mask information they don’t want others to know; 74 percent of teen social media users have deleted people from their network or friends list.

Internet of things

One session will focus on “the Internet of things.” That refers to the fact that there are now millions of devices online that are exchanging information between themselves. It could be a soda machine phoning home to report that it needs to be refilled or a connected car interacting with the dealer’s computer over a possible malfunction. Eventually we will have devices implanted in our bodies that send diagnostic data to medical facilities and receive remote commands.

Even though humans may not be in the loop when it comes to thing-to-thing communications, we are often affected by them so there are plenty of privacy, security and safety implications. Former Vice President Dick Chaney was reportedly concerned about terrorist hacking his pacemaker – as occurred to a fictional VP in an episode of the TV show Homeland.  It’s not such a preposterous idea. In June, the Federal Drug Administration put out a warning that “there is an increased risk of cybersecurity breaches, which could affect how a medical device operates.”

The conference runs Wednesday and Thursday at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington DC.



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NSA snooping and youth rights at Internet UN’s Internet Governance Forum

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

BALI, Indonesia — For the past eight years, Internet “stakeholders” from governments, nonprofit and activist organizations and the technology industry have gathered at the United Nations-sponsored Internet Governance Forum to talk about Internet policy issues such as child protection, free speech, privacy and freedom of online speech. And last week, about 2,000 people gathered in Bali to continue the conversation.

This is the fourth IGF I’ve attended. In previous years, the United States had the moral high ground when it came to issues of openness, freedom of expression and protection against unwarranted privacy intrusions, especially from governments. But Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance tactics has become a major subtext at this year’s conference.

In her remarks at the opening session, Lynn St. Amour, the CEO of the Internet Society, condemned the government’s surveillance as “a cloud over all our efforts” that undermines the trust people have in the Internet.

And in an interview, Thomas Gass, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for economic and social affairs, talked about the need to rebuild trust in the Internet. In addition to his concern about NSA surveillance on U.S. citizens and foreign governments, he worries that other countries will try to set up “similar surveillance systems or protection systems against the surveillance.” Like others who expressed concern, Gass acknowledged that “we know the U.S. is not the only country that has been doing this.”

In a session on big data, Alexandrine Pirlot of Privacy International criticized the NSA for collecting data without a specific purpose or the knowledge and consent of the people who’s data is being collected.

Marie Georges, an adviser to the Council of Europe, warned that if that kind of government surveillance continues, “people will be very afraid to use any kind of information technology.”

Of course, there were plenty of other issues also discussed at IGF, including domain name policies, cybersecurity threats, network infrastructure technical issues and human rights, copyright and intellectual property concerns. However, by design, nothing was resolved. Attendees at the three-day conference don’t make any binding decisions. The IGF is not a governing body, but simply a place for all stakeholders to discuss issues

I was there to speak on a couple of panels on digital citizenship for youth and one titled “Child Protection vs. the Rights of the Child” that explored whether efforts to protect children online might also restrict their rights of free speech.

I organized the workshop because — as a longtime Internet safety advocate — I’ve noticed the adult response to helping keep kids safe often involves some type of monitoring or filtering that can impact children’s privacy or limit their ability to express themselves or access information.

Many schools, for example, block access to social media sites. And while parents and schools may have valid reasons to keep kids from looking at porn, the filters that block porn sometimes also block other types of content as well. And then there is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law that protects kids from revealing personal information to marketers, and keeps kids under 13 from accessing Facebook and other social media sites because the sites allow users to share information.

I’m all for finding ways to keep online children safe, but I thought it worth exploring the extent to which it’s necessary to restrict their freedom in the name of privacy and safety. I’m not arguing that adults shouldn’t supervise or restrict children’s online activities. But when it comes to speech issues, I think it’s worth pointing out that the First Amendment doesn’t have an age test.

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Internet Governance Forum Tackles Child Protection Vs. Child Rights

Bali, Indonesia — I’m at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF #IGF2013) in Bali where I’m participating in a workshop on child protection vs. child rights. As a child safety advocate, I’ve long argued that young people need “digital literacy” to understand how to safely navigate the online world. That can be protecting their emotional well-being by helping them avoid or deal with cyberbullying but it can also be helping young people understand how to protect their privacy online or to make sure they’re not posting images or other content that could harm their reputation. It also involves teaching empathy and social-emotional learning to help youth better understand how to treat their peers, whether they be close friends or people they only encounter online.

My personal approach to child safety is to start by assuming that “the kids are all right” and — as a default — treat children and teens respectfully by providing them with the tools and information they need to protect themselves and respect others. I’ve long said that the best Internet filter is the one that runs between the child’s ears, and have never been a huge fan of widespread use of parental control or monitoring software, except when parents have seen a real need to use it for their kids. It’s not that I’m against using tools that limit or monitor what kids do, it’s just that I think the tools need to be used thoughtfully, only when necessary, and not be a substitute for good parenting or helping kids develop their ability to do what’s right without external controls.

Yet, there are those who feel that most kids need to be controlled or monitored, and there are plenty of companies selling such tools. Schools too often use control software not only to block porn and sites that advocate violence or drug and alcohol use but often also block social networking sites, YouTube and other media that kids commonly access away from school.

To explore this issue, I organized a panel at IGF titled “Child Protection vs. Child Rights.” Article 13 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” Yet in the very countries that have ratified this convention, parents and schools are denying young people access to some types of content in the name of protection.

There are no simple answers. There are lots of adults who strongly believe in free speech rights for kids yet at the same time feel it’s necessary to limit their access to certain types of content and media.

Panelists include John Carr, Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety (UK); Janice Richardson, European Schoolnet and Insafe (Belgium); Nevine Tewfit, Ministry of Communications (Egypt); Yannis Li, Dot Kids Foundation (Hong Kong) and Larry Magid, (US). The moderator is Anjan Bose, ECPAT International (Thailand).

Larry Magid is co-director of and founder of


Facebook lets teens post publicly: Why that’s a good things

Digital citizenship includes rights as well as responsibilities

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Facebook Lets Teens Post Publicly: Why That’s a Good Thing

Facebook announced today that it’s changing its policy to allow teens to post publicly. Prior to today, Facebook members aged 13 through 17 were only allowed to post to a limited audience that max out with friends of friends.

In a blog post, Facebook said that teens will also “be able to turn on Follow so that their public posts can be seen in people’s News Feeds” As is the case now, followers can only see posts that they’ve been authorized to see.

There will be some who will no doubt question Facebook’s wisdom and motives for allowing teens to share publicly. But I for one am all for it. My reason is simple. Teens deserve the same free speech rights as adults and many teens want to be able to speak out on issues that are important to them.

Free speech and youth activism

One need only look at the work of Malala Yousafzai, the 16 year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head for speaking in favor of the rights of women and girls. She was able to speak directly on this subject, to blog about it, to be interviewed and to make media appearances but – based on the rules that were in place until today, she wouldn’t have been allowed to post about it on Facebook.

Although the First Amendment applies to government, not the private sector, there is nothing in it that says that freedom of speech is only a right for people over a specific age.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (which is law for most countries served by Facebook) is even more explicit. “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.”

“Any other media” clearly includes social media such as Facebook and any arbitrary rules preventing teens from expressing themselves or accessing information expressed by others certainly violates the spirit that convention.

But forget rights for a moment and just focus on dignity. We are trying to teach our children to be good citizens and that includes speaking out on issues that concern them. Whether it’s the treatment of women and girls, the environment, the economy, issues of war and peace or even their thoughts on sports teams or their favorite foods, young people not only have a right to express themselves but, by doing so, they are helping our democracy by engaging in dialog about issues.

Proud parents

The notion that teens shouldn’t be allowed to share publicly is actually something that we’ve mostly been talking about in the age of social media. When I was a kid, my parents were happy when the local paper wrote a story about how I had done something laudable. My own son Will Magid, now a professional musician, performed publicly when he was in high school. Based on the old rules, he couldn’t have used Facebook to post his recordings or videos of his performances to share with the same people who might have been in the auditorium when he performed. Of course there are things teens shouldn’t post publicly on Facebook just as there are things they shouldn’t say to strangers on the street. The good news — based on recent surveys – is that most teens know this.

As a private company Facebook doesn’t have to give teens the right to speak in public but as a forum that has more members than the population of any country besides China and India, it has a moral obligation to allow unfettered speech to all of its members.

Right to privacy and free speech

Having said that, Facebook also has a responsibility to protect the privacy of teens and everyone else, which is why it’s important that teens be made aware that they have control over who sees each of their posts. By default new teen accounts will default to friends only (it used to be friends of friends) but now they can expand or narrow that audience. Both teens and adults need to be aware that if you post publicly, subsequent posts will also be public until you again change the audience. I wish there was the option to have the audience settings automatically revert back to the user’s preferred default so that if you usually post privately and decide to post publicly, the next time it would revert back to private.

Parents, privacy advocates, teachers and anyone else who interacts with teens should do all they can to make sure that young people understand how to use Facebook’s privacy tools and remember that there are consequences to what you post – in some cases even if it’s only shared among your friends

But there are also consequences to keeping people – of any age – from being able to express themselves and I for one am glad that Facebook has finally unshackled its teenage users.

Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook


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Let’s not underestimate the impact of cyberbullying

New guide from ConnectSafely helps parents deal with cyberbullying

New guide from ConnectSafely helps parents deal with cyberbullying

For advice on how to deal with cyberbullying, check out’s new free online booklet, A Parents’ Guide to Cyberbullying

I’ve written several columns about how people tend to exaggerate the number of kids who are affected by cyberbullying, but just because I’m a stickler on wanting to report accurate numbers from credible sources doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s a very serious problem.

If you or someone you care about has been cyberbullied, bullied in-person or both, it doesn’t matter whether you’re part of an “epidemic” — as some people claim — or if you’re in a minority, any more than it matters to cancer patients how common their condition might be. What you want is for the pain to stop. And if you’re a parent or a kid who is worried about being bullied — again — the numbers don’t matter as much as getting some good advice on how to keep bullying out of your life.

Having said this, I still think it’s wrong and potentially even dangerous to exaggerate the problem as I’ll describe later, but — in the meantime — know that bullying, at least for some kids, can be extremely distressing.

Tragic outcomes

There have been lots of news stories about really bad outcomes from cyberbulling ranging from severe depression to the unthinkable — a child taking his or her life. To someone affected by a situation like this, it doesn’t matter that such incredibly horrible outcomes are rare, nor does it matter that some experts have written that bullying alone doesn’t cause suicide. That may be true and, as co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center Justin Patchin wrote, “Most people who have spent some time exploring the connection understand that, like any association in the social sciences, it is often much more complicated than simply X causes Y.” But, as Patchin went on to say, “I think it is just as important to remember that, as inappropriate as it is to assert that ‘bullying causes suicide,’ it is perhaps equally incorrect to say that ‘bullying does not cause suicide.’”

We also know that the vast majority of youth who are bullied don’t commit suicide or necessarily even think about it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t distressing.

Support our children

What does matter is that we support all of our children by working to prevent bullying and finding sensible and effective ways for dealing with it when it occurs. Sometimes that means letting kids handle it on their own or among their peers, sometimes it means adult intervention. What doesn’t help are knee-jerk reactions that can sometimes make the problem worse. Even well meaning “zero tolerance policies,” can sometimes backfire by treating every incidence of alleged bullying as if it were a very big deal. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

As when talking about supporting kids — don’t just focus on what some call “peer victimization.” It’s not uncommon for kids to be bullied by adults and there are plenty of other issues facing youth including neglect, obesity and the affects of poverty.

Bullying defined

It’s also helpful to understand the definition of bullying. Olwues Bullying Prevention says that “Cyber bullying, like traditional bullying, involves an imbalance of power, aggression, and a negative action that is often repeated.” The U.S. government’s website’s definition is almost identical. Most experts agree that a single mean, rude or insensitive comment in an email or on a social networking site — however hurtful it might be — doesn’t, by itself, constitute bullying.

Why exaggerating the numbers is bad

I’ve heard from some people that my complaints about exaggerating the bullying numbers somehow minimizes and therefore makes the problem worse, but I think the opposite is true. As I pointed out in my post Social norms research: Exaggerating bullying could increase bullying, putting the bullying problem into its proper perspective doesn’t minimize it and actually helps prevent it from getting worse. There is a lot of solid research that shows that if people overestimate anti-social or harmful behavior, they are more likely to engage in it themselves. In other words, reporting accurately about the rate of bullying actually makes kids less likely to bully others.

For evidence, I turn to the the research of H. Wesley Perkins, David W. Craig and Jessica M. Perkins who published a paper (PDF) in the April, 2011 edition of Group Processes Intergroup Relations, that shows that “variation in perceptions of the peer norm for bullying was significantly associated with personal bullying perpetration and attitudes.” As the authors pointed out, “decades of research in social psychology … have demonstrated the strong tendency of people to conform to peer norms.” If people think the “norm” is to bully, they’re more likely to bully but if they know that most of their peers don’t bully, they’re less likely to bully others. This, by the way, is consistent with other research on harmful or anti-social behavior including smoking and excessive drinking.

Numbers vary

The actual numbers on bullying and cyberbullying are all over the map, partially because not everyone defines it the same way. Here’s a link to some of the credible research that’s out there. But — once again — I want to emphasize that numbers don’t tell the whole story. Each child is different and each child is precious and — at the risk of repeating an oft-used phrase, “even one case is one too many.”




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Google May Feature You In An Ad With ‘Shared Endorsements’ (Unless You Opt-Out)

Read the full post on

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Facebook to no longer let you opt-out of being found via search

Click for Larry Magid’s 1-minute CBS News & CNET segment about Facebook dropping the search setting

Facebook has eliminated a setting called  “Who can look up your Timeline by name?,” which controlled whether you could be found when people typed your name into the Facebook search bar.

In a blog post, Facebook’s chief privacy officer Michael Richter said that the  setting was “created when Facebook was a simple directory of profiles and it was very limited.”  The feature also created a false sense of security because it gave some people the sense that they were hiding  just because they couldn’t be found in search. Not true. There are many ways that people can find you on Facebook including links from other people’s profiles.

If you block someone, they can’t find you via search or any other way on the service.

Protecting what you post

You can control the audience for each post

You can control the audience for each post

While it may be hard to hide on Facebook, you can protect the privacy of your content.  Every time you post you have the option to determine the audience. It can be everyone (Public), Friends, Friends of Friends or limited to a smaller group of people or even “just me.”

For more, here is Facebook’s privacy settings help page

Read more  on CNET

Facebook’s blog post about the change

Disclosure: Facebook provides financial support to ConnectSafely and co-directors Larry Magid and Anne Collier serve on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board.

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Parents can help prevent cyberbullying


Free booklet advises parents on how to deal with Cyberbullying

While bullying has been around forever, there was no such thing as cyberbullying until about 20 years ago when people discovered the ability to use technology to display their mean, cruel, annoying and generally negative side. And since the late 1990s we’ve seen lots of stories about the “epidemic” of cyberbullying among young people. But as my co-director Anne Collier and I explain in our new booklet, A Parents’ Guide to Cyberbullying, it’s a serious problem that deserves our attention but it’s far from an epidemic and not just limited to young people.

For the most part, cyberbullying is pretty similar to in-person bullying, but there are some differences between in-person and online communications that can change (not necessarily worsen) its nature and impact. As bullying expert Elizabeth Englander pointed out in a recent post on Harvard Education Letter, communicating online takes on different dimensions from in-person relationships including the fact that “Talking digitally can make you feel uninhibited and lead you to say things you might not say anywhere else” and “Texting or posting back and forth about a feeling can cause that feeling to escalate and can make the situation worse.”

Other differences between in-person and online is that a negative online comment can stick around for a long time and be seen by a lot of people. And, unlike a physical confrontation or verbal abuse at school, bullying via text message, email or social networking can follow children home and haunt them after school on weekends and during school breaks. Depending a lot on individual factors including the nature of the incident and the child’s resilience and psychological state-of-mind, the impact of cyberbullying can range from mildly annoying to devastating. It’s impossible to generalize and — even when something tragic follows an episode of cyberbullying, it’s not always possible to assign a single cause for what happened.

Not all unpleasant online interactions are cyberbulling

Having an online argument isn’t necessarily cyberbullying. In fact, the U.S. government’s website’s definition of youth bullying (endorsed by most experts) is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”  A single mean, rude or insensitive comment in an email or on a social networking site — however hurtful it might be — doesn’t, by itself, constitute bullying. If it did, the cyberbullying rate among both kids and adults would probably be close to 100%.

Tips for parents and teens’s new cyberbullying booklet answers parents’ top five questions and provides tips for both parents and young people. Tips for parents (which are greatly expanded and explained in the guide) include:

  • Know that you’re lucky if your child asks for help
  • Respond thoughtfully, not fast
  • Kids who have been bullied need to be listened to
  • The ultimate goal is restored self-respect

Children and teens are advised to:

  • Remember that “it’s not your fault”
  • Save the evidence
  • Not respond or retaliate
  • Reach out for help
  • Use available tech tools to block he person
  • Take action if someone you know is being bullied

This post first appeared on

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Beware of the Internet Safety Industrial Complex

Is this the new parenting?

Is this the new parenting? Creative Commons image by Sevillana

By Larry Magid

I got a call recently from a woman who works for a company that makes an app designed to “keep kids safe” by enabling parents to monitor their texts and social media activities. The pitch included some dire statistics such as “70% of kids are cyberbullied” and — like other companies that make parental-control software — I was also told that it helps protect kids from strangers who would do them harm.

She even told me that she uses the product with her 17-year-old son so she can be his “admin,” and help him if things go wrong. I so wish I could have interviewed her son. It’s hard to image a 17 year-old boy actually wanting his mom to monitor his online activities even though this particular product — to its credit — doesn’t provide parents with a complete transcript of everything the kid does but just notifies them in the event something inappropriate appears to occur.

As pitches from parental-control companies go it was pretty mild. I’ve seen others spout frightening statistics that would scare the heck out of any parent, with phony data about online sexual predators or the looming threat of bullying and cyberbullying-induced suicide. Then there’s the sexting panic and — worse —  “sextortion” where someone threatens to send around naked pictures of your child unless he or she agrees to have sex with them.

Not just companies

And it’s not just companies. Some non-profit organizations, government agencies, politicians and police departments have also exaggerated problems, presumably to attract media attention or possibly help justify their budgets. One non-profit organization has repeatedly claimed that 85% of teens have been cyberbullied — a number that flies in the face of all reputable research reports. Be especially wary when you hear statements like “a disturbing trend” or a “growing problem” that aren’t accompanied by any research data. What many of these reports fail to say is that victimization of children has been on a steady decline for years. Problems do exist including some horrendous stories about exploited and abused children, but as David Finkelhor pointed out in The Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of “Juvenoia, “sex crimes overall and against children have dropped dramatically in the US” during the same period that Internet use has skyrocketed.

One size doesn’t fit all

I’m not saying that there aren’t kids who might benefit from filtering or monitoring. But not all kids do. And even if you feel you do need parental-control software or service, it’s important to remember that they are never a substitute for common sense, engaged parenting and — most important — teaching kids to be respectful of others, self-protective and resilient. Eventually your kids will grow up and one of the purposes of childhood is to learn to protect yourself long after mommy and daddy and whatever tools they employ are off the job.

Fake numbers

Even though I knew it was completely false, it didn’t surprise me to hear the spokesperson for the monitoring app claim that 70% of kids had been cyberbullied. Though not all are guilty of this, it’s not uncommon to hear such exaggerations from companies (and some agencies and non-profits) in the Internet safety space.

While any case of cyberbullying is bad, the fact is that the statistics are nowhere near as dire.  The numbers vary a lot. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that 6% of students in grades 6-12 experienced cyberbullying. The Centers for Disease Control found in 2011 that 16.2% of students had been bullied via email, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites or texting — compared to 20.1% who had been bullied on school property (traditional bullying) — during the 12 months prior to the survey. The Cyberbullying Research Center reports that “on average, about 24% of the students who have been a part of our last six studies have said they have been the victim of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime.”

Dan Olweus, who the editor of the European Journal of Development Psychology referred to as the “father of bullying research” wrote a 2012 article for that journal where he said that “claims about cyberbullying made in the media and elsewhere are greatly exaggerated and have little empirical scientific support.” Based on a three-year survey of more than 440,000 U.S. children (between 3rd and 12th grade), 4.5% of kids had been cyberbullied compared to 17.6% from that same sample who had experienced traditional bullying.  An even more interesting statistic from that study is that only 2.8% of kids had bullied others.

Not all risk is created equal

Most experts agree with Olweus who defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that is intentional and that invoices an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time.” But clearly there are a range of behaviors that affect child ranging from mildly annoying to extremely severe. However we label them, we need to avoid assuming that every rude or mean act is extremely harmful.

There have also been a lot of false reports about the incidences of kids being sexually solicited online. During that recent pitch about the monitoring app, I was told that the woman’s own son encountered creeps online but — when I asked what happened — she said that he ignored them. It turns out that’s common. Unless kids are looking to hook up with strangers online, that’s exactly what most teens do. Parents can freak out all they want, but kids generally know how to avoid getting entangled in unwanted online relationships. And those few who do become victims typically meet the offender “expecting to engage in sexual activity,” according to a paper from the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CRCC).

The problem — as articulated by researchers — is that some kids take extraordinary risks and the kids who take risks online are the same ones that make bad decisions in their offline lives. As the Internet Safety Technical Task Force concluded, “Minors are not equally at risk online. Those who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives. The psychosocial makeup of and family dynamics surrounding particular minors are better predictors of risk than the use of specific media or technologies.”

Whatever the numbers are, they’re still too high but they represent a small minority of kids which is why a one-size-fits-all approach, including monitoring and filtering, doesn’t make sense. If we’re going to serve the population that is at risk, we need to develop programs that provide serious intervention. An Internet filter or monitoring program could be part of the solution, but it’s only a small part.

Why this matters

There are a lot of reasons why exaggerating is bad. For one thing, it causes parents to worry unnecessarily. Of course parents are concerned about their kids use of online technology but focusing on the technology — instead of the child’s social emotional state — is likely to divert their attention from real issues. And, as Olweus pointed out in this paper, “It may also create feelings of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of the presumably ‘huge’ and ubiquitous cyberbullying problem.” Olweus is also concerned that fixating on cyberbullying could encourage “an unfortunate shift in the focus of anti-bullying work if digital bullying is seen as the key bullying problem in the schools.” He worries about funneling resources in the wrong direction, while “traditional bullying — which is clearly the most prevalent and most serious problem – would be correspondingly downgraded.”

I worry about something else. One of the best ways to counter negative behavior is to show that it’s not the norm. Exaggerating cyberbullying makes it look common — in some cases we’ve seen numbers that make it look as if the majority of kids are engaged in it. If it’s common it must be normal and if it’s normal — so goes the reasoning — it must be OK. Well, it’s not common, it’s not normal and it’s definitely not OK. Norms research from Professors H. Wesley Perkins and David Craig has shown that emphasizing that most kids don’t bully actually decreases bullying.

For more, scroll down to view the slide presentation, “Do fear and exaggeration increase risk?”

Monitor the monitors

So, the next time someone tries to sell you software or a service to control or monitor your kids, ask yourself whether you really need it and if your kid will benefit from its use. If your kids are like most, chances are you won’t need it. But even if you do, use it with caution. Ultimately the best control mechanism are the ones that your child has internalized. And, since most of us live long past our 18th birthday, what’s important isn’t just how you’re able to control your kid as a child but how your child grows up to protect him or herself.  And the last time I checked, teaching self-respect, empathy, kindness, reslience and self-control was way beyond the scope of any of these products.

Roosevelt and Eisenhower said it well

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

In his famous 1960 speech, three days before leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans to beware of the military industrial complex. Although he was talking about armaments — not parental-control software — he nonetheless left us with a sobering yet optimistic thought. “Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”


Franklin Delano Roosevelt

And of course who can forget Franklin Roosevelt’s words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

It’s time for us to put aside the fear, respect our youth and model the types of behaviors that will help them learn to respect themselves and others.

Slideshow: Do fear and exaggeration increase risk?


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