As a previous generation of children was given the blanket advice "Don't talk to strangers," today's kids are told "never give out your personal information online." A new study suggests that this well-intentioned advice is not sufficient to protect children from unwanted sexual solicitation and harassment. The study comes to the controversial conclusion that sharing information online is not correlated with victimization. Many other online safety experts maintain that privacy protection is always a good first line of defense, though clearly not the only step.
The study, published in the February 2007 issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine and reported by the AP, found that victimization is likely to be associated with online behavior such as talking about sex with people met online, or intentionally embarrassing someone else on the Internet.
Assuming that kids will talk to people online, the task becomes teaching them the safest ways to communicate, what at-risk behaviors to avoid, and warning signs to spot. The survey found that some risky behaviors are commonplace and often occurred while using the Internet with friends. The authors advise pediatricians to take a more nuanced and comprehensive approach when discussing these issues with their patients and their parents:
"It may not be feasible to change the entire online culture, and the promotion of prevention messages that contradict or fail to recognize widely accepted online behavior may lack credibility with youth. Instead of imparting the message 'don't talk to strangers online,' a harm-reduction approach may be more effective: 'I know many young people your age are meeting people online. You probably know how easy it is to hide your identity. Be careful and know that you can discontinue a relationship any time by changing your login name or blocking someone.'"
A final finding, that the risk for online victimization is elevated when kids experience offline abuse, victimization, or conflict with their parents, underscores for me the complexities of the situation and the need for social protection through sound laws and public policy. The entire study is available through the Archives of Pediatric Medicine link, and provides much food for thought for all adults who work to keep kids safe.