Boy did we hear a lot!
The Fatherly piece said that parents should be aware that kids online are at grave risk of being approached by strangers. It quoted an anti-rape advocacy organization saying that, ”at any given moment…there are 50,000 offenders attempting to have contact with children.”
The article then suggested that we should all become “helicopter parents” who watch our kids' every keystroke -- right down to their texts.
Your Facebook responses to this were so interesting and thoughtful. They ran the gamut from, “I kind of agree. I would hover if my kid was walking into a strip club, and that’s basically the Internet," to, “It feels hard for me to get worked up about kids chatting with ‘strangers.’ I mean, does that include other kids? If so I mean, really? What’s the harm?”
That commenter added, “But I definitely don’t think giving total free reign with no oversight is the right way either. It’s just so hard to know. A good porn blocker goes a long way.“
That was pretty much the response of the experts I asked to read the piece, too.
STRANGER DANGER ONLINE?
St. Francis College Sociology Professor Emily Horowitz, author of two books on sex offenses, said that “Sexual crimes against children have been decreasing for over 20 years” – even as more and more children have been going online. So fear of “stranger danger” online is as misplaced as the stranger-danger fear off-line. “Children are almost never abducted by strangers, even with the advent of online games and social media,” Horowitz said.
The Fatherly piece reminded her of the “Satanic Panic” of the late ‘80s, when parents were warned that children were being abused by Satanic day care workers – a fear that turned out to be unfounded. And yet it terrified many parents about a very normal activity – sending their kids to day care.
Anne Collier, executive director of the Net Safety Collaborative and a longtime writer/researcher about child safety online, reassures parents that, “We know from academic research that the vast majority of kids have absolutely no contact with predators.” She added that the sad truth is that kids who are more at risk offline – often because of a troubled home life – are the ones more at risk online, too.
THE ADVICE WE ALL AGREE ON
Like many of the commenters on our Facebook page, Collier said that, “The #1 safety tip is to talk to your kids and be in just as much communication about their online experiences as their offline lives. Keep those communication channels open and try not to be governed by fear.”
Or, as I like to put it: Talk, don’t stalk.
Most of our Facebook commenters agreed that open communication is key. They added that fear of predators was not necessarily their big concern. Some were more worried about the commercialism online, or they did not want their kids spending so much screen time. Some added that they take measures that do not involve online surveillance, such as having their kids keep all devices out of their rooms at night, or only allowing the kids to use the computer in a public space in their home.
BEWARE THE "50,000" STAT
Clearly this is a matter that all parents will decide for themselves and adjust depending on the circumstances. But one reality-check to note is that the “50,000 predators online” number has not been substantiated. In fact, a fascinating piece on NPR a few years back said to beware the 50,000 stat whenever it pops up. It has been trotted out as a believable yet scary number over and over. (NPR called it the “Goldilocks number.”) As early as 1985, advocacy organizations were warning that “as many as 50,000 children are abducted a year” – an absurd figure, according to the FBI.
Bottom line: The internet is not perfectly safe, because nothing is. Take the precautions that make sense for you and your family, understanding that trust is also a safeguard. Especially as your kids get older, says Horowitz, "If they find out you're [secretly] following them it will harm your ability to communicate with them."
So talk to your kids about their online and offline lives. Do so understanding that just as we as a country are starting to re-examine the idea that kids can never be safe outside, so must we examine the idea that they can never be safe playing Minecraft.
As always, we are eager to hear your thoughts, observations and solutions on this big issue. - L.S.