One evening last week I attended Tech Night at my daughter's elementary school. Sponsored by the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), it's an evening designed to bring parents of the school's community up to speed on what's what vis a vis technology, teaching, and learning. These are common events at schools accorss the country.
Our Tech Night was comprised of a handful of PowerPoint presentations by fourth graders on the topic of animal habitats, followed by a presentation by an officer from our local police department on what parents should know about the Internet and keeping their children safe.
I was dismayed, to put it mildly, how the officer's presentation emanated from a position of fear and relied on a mostly unrealistic portrayal of facts about youth and the Internet. Don't get me wrong -- the officer came to his task with a heart of gold. But as a heavy Internet user, trainer of public school principals, and a director in the nation's only center devoted to the online needs of K-12 leaders, I felt sure that the officer's brush strokes were too broad. I also was taken aback by how my fellow parents drank in every word unquestioningly.
But just because I felt it this way didn't mean I was right. So I took the officer's advice, went online, and looked up some of this information myself.
Here are a few of the points addressed at Tech Night and what I learned by going online.
Police: If your child is regularly on the Internet, then 1 out of 5 of them has talked to a sexual predator and not known about it.
Accuracy: Not accurate.
What the Data Say: The claim the officer made is probably based on the widely cited Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS), which cites that 1 in 7 youth receive “unwanted sexual solicitations” online. However, many experiences which receive this label are probably not encounters with true Internet sex offenders. As researchers followed up with the children, many of the youngsters assert that such solicitations are from other youth or just casual rude comments. 1 in 25 youth receive an online sexual solicitation where the solicitor tried to make offline contact. That's 4%. Not 20%. [Link]
Police: Sexual predators will probably represent themselves as someone younger.
Accuracy: Not really true.
What the Data Say:
"In the vast majority of Internet sex crimes against young people, offenders did not actually deceive youth about the fact that they were adults who had sexual intentions. Acknowledging that they were older, the offenders seduced youth by being understanding, sympathetic, flattering, and by appealing to young people’s interest in romance, sex and adventure." [Link]
Revealing Personal Information
Police: Giving out personal information online in social media sites, such as Facebook, invites sexual predators to solicit your children.
Accuracy: Not really true
What the Data Say: Research suggests that online molesters have not changed their tactics since Facebook and MySpace appeared. Researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center conducted over 400 interviews with police about Internet-related sex crimes. Not one case was found where sex offenders stalked and abducted minors based on information posted in social networking sites. Bottom line:
"Online molesters do not appear to be stalking unsuspecting victims, but rather continuing to seek youth who are susceptible to seduction… In addition, youth with profiles on social networking sites, even those who were actively trying to meet new people, were no more likely than other online youth to have uncomfortable or scary contacts with unknown people."
Susceptibility of Elementary School Children to Internet Risks
Police: Elementary school children are especially at risk. A child's mind does not work like that of an adult.
Accuracy: Not really true.
What the Data Say: Reports indicate that the predominant victims of online sex crimes are not young children, they are teens. And they are not duped into conversations by adults who pose as teens. Rather, its teens who openly accepted invitations from adults who were clear about their sexual intentions and willingly talked back. Who are these teens? They are teens most likely to have been victims of physical or sexual abuse themselves or come from a troubled home.
Police: Bullying is a big problem. 2 out of 3 kids say they have been bullied.
Accuracy: Big Problem: True. 2 out 3 kids are bullied: Not true.
What the Data Say: It's not 66%, but it is high (and thankfully receding). Reports of children who are physically bullied has dropped from nearly 22% in 2003 to less than 15% in 2008. The percentage of children reporting they had been assaulted by other youths, including siblings, dropped from 45% to 38.4%.
What I wanted to know is how much of this bullying is just on the Internet. While I wasn't able to determine that precisely, I did discover that verbal bullying is the most prevalent, followed by physical and then by Internet bullying.
I also learned that
"children who reported being victimized by peers had parents who described their homes as ones in which family members often criticized one another and there were few rules. With respect to children who reported bullying others, their parents characterized their homes as ones with a lack of supervision."
Police: Sexting is out of control
Accuracy: Hard to tell.
What the Data Say: Well, the thing of it is, there aren't any real reliable data. I'll encourage you to read this brief which outlines the problems with research on sexting prevalence and highlight just a couple of studies here which are typical.
A widely cited statistic is that 20% of teens, ages 13 to 19, had sent or posted nude or semi‐nude pictures or videos of themselves on the Internet or through a cell phone. “Teens” described in the study included 18‐ and 19‐year‐olds, for whom it is legal for to produce and share sexual photos of themselves. Nonetheless, the "20%" figure is often cited. Secondly, the survey was not conducted with a random sample and therefore is not an accurate picture of the general population of teens surveyed. Another popular statistic which is cited stems from a Harris Interactive poll in which 1 in 5 teens are reported to have engaged in sexting. In fact the poll states that 1 in 5 teens have received an image and less than 1 in 10 are responsible for producing and sending an image and only 3% forward an image. Several other studies are reviewed in the brief.
Police: Colleges everywhere are now looking at your child's Facebook to decide if they will admit them.
Accuracy: A kernel of truth.
What the Data Say: According to Kaplan Test Prep, 24 percent of college admissions officers admit to doing a little digging on an applicant's Facebook profile to better decide whether to invite that student to an interview. So it's not exactly used to determine admissions, but may be used to determine if speaking further with an applicant is warranted or not. Most schools do not conduct interviews for admission. Those that do tend to be highly selective private schools.
Checking In Online
Police: "Checking in" at locations using online services like FourSquare and FaceBook inform burglars that you're not home and leave you open to crime.
Accuracy: Who really knows?
What the Data Say: While I couldn't find any data on this, concern over this may stem from a website, Please Rob Me, which took Twitter feeds and reworded them to advertise that a person was not home. You can read FourSquare's stance on this here. This is not necessarily an Internet problem, but more of a common-sense problem. As one commenter to a Gawker article noted,
"You might as well argue that you should never tell anyone that you have a job, because then people will know you are at work from 9-5 every day, and can use the white pages to find your home and rob you!"
The Internet is An Amazing Educational Tool
Police: Parents can rest assured that there are many valid, educational, and enriching reasons why their children should be on the Internet.
Truth: Actually, nothing even remotely resembling the above remark was made during Tech Night.
(Photo illustration CC John Nash)