Online social networking sites are again in the news. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said on Monday his office is investigating Facebook for allegedly not keeping young users safe from sexual predators and not responding to user complaints. Cuomo joins fellow AGs Roy Cooper from North Carolina and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut among activist AGs parading the horribles of social networking websites.
Law enforcement and industry efforts are important, but what’s the single most effective way to keep kids safe online? Education. And at least one state AG gets it, as Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum has this to say on online safety:
“While it is certainly important to have stronger laws against Internet sex predators and child pornography, education for Internet users of all ages is paramount,” said McCollum. “Parents and children alike must be more aware of the dangers often encountered online and understand and employ basic safety tips for surfing the Internet.”
Students everywhere are back in their classrooms and beginning to tackle familiar subjects like math, reading, science and social studies. But how many students will receive classroom education about the importance of Internet safety? Hardly any—even in light of a growing concern about the safety of chat rooms and social networking sites.
Unlike summer breaks of the past, where kids would anxiously yearn for the social scene of classrooms and hallways, today kids can easily keep in touch online all summer long. Social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Xanga allow teens to stay in regular contact with their classmates during summer vacation. Ninety-six percent of teenagers use some form online social networking technologies, which also include instant messaging and chat forums.
Yet there’s a surprising lack of online safety education in our nation’s classrooms. Only a few states require that online safety education be taught in school. Last year Virginia became the first state to pass a law that mandates the integration of internet safety into their regular instruction. Yet over half of school districts pursue a prohibition—not an education—strategy by banning the use of social networking sites while on school property, according to a recent study from the National School Boards Association.
Instead of focusing on teaching kids to stay safe online, several states are pursuing new laws to regulate social networking websites. A proposed bill in North Carolina would require anyone under 18 to have a parent’s permission before being allowed to join a social networking site such as MySpace.
At first glance, that seems like a reasonable idea, which is probably why so many politicians have latched onto it. But the devil is in the details, and big headlines don’t necessarily translate into a safer Internet. There are no databases or identification measures to verify that a person whom a child designates as a parent is in fact the parent. A parental consent law would fail to improve safety, and might actually lead parents to have a false sense of security that their children aren’t online and on social networking sites.
Experience and common sense suggest that education and good old-fashioned parenting are far better approaches than regulating social networking websites. Contrary to popular belief, most sex crimes committed by people that kids meet on the Internet are not liaisons based on false pretenses. Rather, a study by the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center found that adult offenders usually make no effort to deceive their victims about their real age or their interest in a sexual relationship. In the cases studied by the researchers only five percent lied about their age in order to pose as a minor, and 80 percent freely revealed their sexual desires. In 89 percent of these cases, underage victims willingly engaged in sexual activity with the adult offender.
Not surprisingly, most of these kids were at-risk youth looking for love and understanding they couldn’t find at home. When parents aren’t around or involved, some kids look elsewhere for acceptance.
When it comes to keeping kids safe, it has been said that the Internet is a lot like a swimming pool. We all know that pools can be dangerous for children. We can try making them safer by building fences, locking gates, and installing pool alarms. But wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to teach our kids how to swim?
We owe it to our kids to teach them to surf, if not swim, the Internet safely. More than ever, online safety education is as much a back-to-school essential as backpacks and lunchboxes. It’s time to create a “fourth R”—along with reading, writing and arithmetic, we should teach kids about the risks of their online behavior.