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Fear Mongering: Is Your Child Safe Online?

Parenting //

As we go through life we often come across ideas that attack firmly held beliefs. (Like the whole Cap’n Crunch scandal.) Often we can dispel these attacks through Snopes or some other fact-checking site.. but sometimes, the arguments that counter our firmly held beliefs call those beliefs into serious question.

A couple of weeks ago I picked up danah boyd’s book (like my friend amy dolan, she really likes lower case letters) It’s Complicated:the social lives of networked teens. I haven’t completed the book, but essentially she is examining a few deeply held beliefs about our children and the online world.

She believes that parental fears are wildly overblown. As part of her research she examines the Ad Council’s statistics that says “one in five children is sexually solicited online” and finds that it is a “misappropriation of scholarly research intended to trigger anxiety.” She brings to light that the same research that gives those numbers include flirtatious remarks between contemporaries as sexual solicitation and that in 69% of those cases “no attempt was made at offline contact.”

She continues to assault the sexual solicitation fears by pointing to crime statistics that show that sex crimes against minors have been steadily declining and that abduction by strangers is rare in comparison to other types of child abduction writing that “the public is not comfortable facing the harrowing reality that strangers are unlikely perpetrators.”

She also goes after the commonly held belief that “teens share too much – and therefore don’t care about privacy.” She said that this idea is so entrenched that research showing the contrary is often ignored by the media.

In short, fear sells commercials. News outlets need to sell commercials. Parents are attracted to stories about their kids (you’re reading this, right?). So, promoting fear about your children online helps them achieve their goal…but at the cost of skewing your perception of reality.

So does that mean your child is safe online?
In short: It’s complicated.

While “stranger danger” shouldn’t be your main mantra, it does exist. But, for the most part, our children are well educated in this area – often to the point where it is silly to them. I don’t thick we should ever go so overboard that safety becomes silly. Likewise, we need to be vigilant about safety in the relationships that the have offline. Our churches and schools should be going to great lengths to vet the people that have access to our children – but ultimate responsibility still lies with us, their parents.

Growing up, privacy was a simple matter: on or off. While I had things that I shared with friends but not mom and dad, or brothers but not friends, I didn’t really think much about the security of that data. I either trusted the people or I didn’t. But our digital natives have been born into a culture where information flows much more freely. Their idea of privacy is being shaped by the world in which they live. Privacy is now about ‘settings.’ In other words I trusted people, they trust the medium.

In The Social Church, Justin Wise points out that those who live through a change better understand the change. As parents we have a perspective of what used to be…and we can use that knowledge to help our children see the importance of what you choose to keep to yourself.

My dad used to say “locks are made for honest people.” And he’s right. Think of Facebook or Google as a building and the privacy settings as locks. You can grant access to the building or different rooms through the use of the keys (privacy settings). What our children need help understanding is that these ‘keys’ only apply to honest people. Just about anyone can learn (probably on YouTube) how to come in through a window. Additionally, they need help understanding that the owners of the building (Facebook or Google) have keys to everything (and why that is good and bad).

Not only does the building analogy apply well, so does the idea that these buildings are in the Wild West. While rules and law does exist on the Internet its still a vast land that is, for the most part, unpatrolled. That means we’re left to rely on the morals of one another – and as a parent, that should be a scary thing.

(For another great review of danah’s book, see John Dyer’s post Kids Are Addicted to Social Media Because Parents Are Addicted to Control)

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About the Author

Jesse and his wife, Teri, will celebrate 20 years of marriage in May of 2012 and are raising two growing sons, Kevin and Alex. After moving from the DC metro area in 2008 they adopted a mastiff named Book and slobber became a way of life. In his spare time, you may find Jesse enjoying photography, biking, or simply watching a movie or reading. Jesse is a graduate of Cohort K from Bethel Seminary’s CFM program and serves as the Children and Family Pastor at the Evangelical Free Church of Wauconda.