I have always enjoyed and admired David Pogue's tech journalism at The New York Times, but I was disturbed by his recent piece "How Dangerous Is the Internet for Children?" which I believe dangerously minimizes the seriousness of the challenges that online life poses for families.
Pogue sets out to write a corrective narrative to what he perceives as a media-overhyped fear of online pedophiles luring children out of their homes, but in the process he discounts other reasonable concerns. The resulting commentary overreacts to the overreactions.
He talks about a mother becoming "hysterical when her 8-year-old stumbled onto a pornographic photo," and reassures us that his 7-year-old was not harmed by accidentally finding doctored "naked" photos of the animated characters The Incredibles.
"Naked pictures" covers a lot of ground, from a National Geographic photo to hard-core pornography. The type of image, extent of exposure, and intent are all relevant in deciding how harmful the experience has been. Pogue's example is not necessarily typical. As I have reported previously, I have spoken to several families whose young sons have been shown explicit, violent pornography by their 8-year-old peers. This was an incredibly upsetting experience for everyone involved.
Additionally, molesters use pornography and exposure to sexuality in many forms, including explicit online conversations, to desensitize and groom their victims.
Secondarily, the fact that porn can pop up at almost any random time creates a real monitoring headache for parents. If the World Book Encyclopedia randomly contained pages of hard-core porn, would you let your 10-year-old browse the volumes unsupervised?
Pogue acknowledges the risks of cyberbullying, and on this point we agree. But when it comes to other risks, he overconfidently states that "the sexual-predator thing is way, way overblown; just as I suspected."
He writes that he "could not find a single example of a preteen getting abducted and murdered by an Internet predator," while omitting the fact that there are documented cases of teenagers falling victim to such schemes. I am sure Pogue would agree that such a crime is not any less awful when it happens to a 13-year-old.
To support his point that the risk of sexual predation is overblown, he references Frontline producer Rachel Dretzin, who created the program "Growing Up Online." Dretzin is quoted as saying, "The data shows that giving out personal information over the Internet makes absolutely no difference when it comes to a child's vulnerability to predation." By my analysis, Dretzin's statement is an incorrect take-home message to derive from a study and follow-up article that concluded that online predation is a "serious problem" that may present itself differently than we imagine, more likely to involve a more extensive grooming process in which "adult offenders who meet, develop relationships with, and openly seduce underage teenagers."
The authors of that study do say that "posting personal information online does not, by itself, appear to be a particularly risky behavior." I would like to revisit that issue more thoroughly in a future post, but common sense seems to refute this idea. Information shared online goes out into the world. How can we know how many real-world crimes had an online component? As Internet safety expert Linda Criddle teaches, if you post to your MySpace page that you are excited to go on vacation next week, and your house gets broken into; or you blog about your cool new custom hubcaps and they get stolen, how many people will make the connection between their online behavior and real-world results? How many teens will even be aware that they have shared revealing information about themselves or friends on blogs, social networking profiles, and comments?
Finally, one factor that tends to be minimized when this study is summarized is the idea that teenagers who have a history of abuse, parental conflict, "offline personal victimization," or are involved in risky behavior in real life are more vulnerable to online victimization as well. In other words, the kids who are struggling in real life are especially vulnerable to online predation. This is something we all need to be more aware of, especially teachers and counselors, who may be able to provide support to teens in a difficult home environment.
What online behavior was analyzed to be the riskiest by the authors of the study Dretzin referred to? "Talking about sex with someone known only online three or more times, intentionally embarrassing someone online three or more times, and meeting people online in all three ways assessed were the behaviors most strongly associated with online interpersonal victimization."
We may want to change the way we look at online risks and the way we teach safety, but the challenges are real. As I wrote last summer, our education needs to go beyond "don't talk to strangers," and these issues need to be addressed in all their complexity.
The specific risks and challenges evolve every day with the arrival of new technology. I have a great deal of empathy for families who are already in distress, who are shut out by the "digital divide" (possibly between themselves and their kids), or who do not have after-school care that allows them to look over their child's shoulder all day long. MomsRising.org reports that each day in the U. S., there are more than 40,000 kindergarteners who are "home alone" after school. That is a topic for another blog but a salient point for any discussion of internet safety.
We have to cope with the idea that nobody really lives in a small town anymore. We are all potentially connected one way or another, broadcasting our lives to the world through the things we post, as well as the information other people post about us.
There's one thing David Pogue and I can agree on: his observation that "this particular genie is out of the bottle." It's up to all of us to support families as we learn to cope in this strange new world.