How High of a Fence Should We Build Around the Internet?

How scary is the Internet? A quick search for “online safety” yields almost a billion hits! According to what we read and hear—very scary! Entire businesses, web sites, curricula, books, blogs, and media, are devoted to helping parents and schools keep kids safe on the Internet.

Unfortunately, a lot of these policies end up keeping kids “safe” from the Internet by denying them participation in potentially educational activities because of fears of online predators, cyberbullying, and other perceived threats. Are these fears real or just irrational responses to graphic stories and images portrayed in the media?

Of course, the threats can be real. As real as car crashes, bicycle accidents, drownings in a backyard pool, or falls down the stairs. The main difference I can see, though, is that while adults are more experienced than their children at driving, they often lag behind them when it comes to things technological. Sometimes “protecting” children by cutting off their access comes from unwillingness or reluctance to learn about how the technology works, rather than a genuine understanding of the real risks involved. This video cleverly illustrates this situation.

I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t do our best to protect children online, but predators and bullies weren’t created by the Internet. In fact, as Anne Collier from NetFamilyNews.org points out, in some ways, kids are safer because of technology. Technology is engaging and reduces boredom, she says, and allows students to have adventures and excitement without engaging in risky real-life behavior. Cyberbullies are easier to track because they leave a virtual trail, and mobile technology has made it possible for kids to get help when they need it and for parents to keep a virtual eye on their children.

Online safety is a real concern for parents and educators, but just saying no out of fear can’t be the answer. Larry Magid, of ConnectSafety.org, has created an interesting slideshow discussing the nature of fear and the Internet.

We can help kids stay safe online the same way we teach them to eat healthy foods and drive safely, through a combination of education, monitoring the environment and controlling their behavior, with the ultimate goal of making children independent, wise decision makers. The difference with technology is that it changes so fast, faster even than the food pyramid! And kids like to stay a step ahead of what has become mainstream. Those of us responsible for the safety of children all need to keep on top of new technologies and the cultural phenomena they generate. When we say no, it should be for a good reason, not as a knee-jerk reaction to something we don’t understand.

Learn More
Watch a video of Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC), called "The Internet, Youth Deviance and the Problem of Juvenoia.” (Finkelhor coined the word “juvenoia” to describe “the exaggerated fear of the influence of social change [including the Internet] on youth.”)

In December 2015, Peggy Grant joined our extended network of alumni.