Are Children in Danger Online?

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

March-April 2009

On January 13, 2009 the New York Times ran an article titled, “Report Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown.” This article highlighted the final report of “The Internet Safety Technical Task Force” which spent a year examining technologies that industry and end users - including parents - could use to keep children safe on the Internet.  The task force’s final report includes reports from both the Technical Advisory Board and the Research Advisory Board (of which I am a member). Several points in the report were striking and important:

  1. The Research Advisory Board completed a thorough literature review which concluded that based on the best peer-reviewed research, using both national and regional samples, the moral panic caused by the media including NBC’s “To Catch a Predator,” are completely overblown. The research showed consistently that the threat of adult predators enticing unsuspecting teens into sexual encounters was essentially nonexistent. When teens are approached online with a sexual solicitation, most often it is from other adolescents and not sexual offenders or trolling adults. In addition, the report confirmed that even when teens are approached, more than 90% of their responses are appropriate.
  2. In spite of the research showing that sexual predators are not roaming the Internet, the news media and other agencies continue to wave a red flag touting these dangers. In a study in progress we are examining media reports of various online issues such as sexual predators, cyberbullying, Internet addition, and pornography. We chose the top 20 circulated newspapers, television news shows, and general interest magazines and tallied the number of times these issues were mentioned between 2002 and 2008. Although the 2008 data collection is in progress we have found a consistent, dramatic increase in negative media. Between 2005 and 2008, the number of negative news stories on Internet “problems” increased 1600%.
  3. The area of cyberbullying is complex since no clear definition is applied to all research studies. However, according to the report, “online harassment or cyberbullying happens to a significant minority of youth, is sometimes distressing, and is frequently correlated with other risky behaviors and disconcerting psychosocial problems.” The report also goes on to state that “this risk is the most common risk that minors face online” yet, is it a problem that can be stopped?  Based on the research I doubt that anything can be done on a technical plane since most of the cyberbullying is done by people that are known to the person being bullied.  Basically, what passes for cyberbullying is “teenage drama” which needs to be addressed by parents and schools.
  4. A third issue, exposure to “problematic content” (read pornography) may be prevalent.  One national study found 42% of youth reported unwanted or wanted exposure with 67% reporting that they did not want to see the porn, but only 9% were very or extremely upset.  Based on my research and other national studies, it is evident that kids want to see porn and it is a whole lot easier to do that now than it was to peek at Playboy Magazine or National Geographic when I was a teenager.
  5. The Technology Advisory Board reviewed many safety technologies and concluded that no single technology could keep kids safe online and that “there is no substitute for a parent, caregiver, or other responsible adult actively guiding and supporting a child in safe Internet usage.”  I am adamant on this issue that it is a waste of time to put software on a pre-teen or teen’s computer because in a matter of minutes a “workaround” will be found online which will include complete instructions for bypassing the filters or any other programs used to keep him/her away from content deemed by the parent to be potentially harmful.

Overall, I would like to commend the task force for being even-handed in its balanced assessment of available technologies with research results. I also feel that no technology should be used as a substitute for good parenting practices. Parents must be aware of what their children are doing online and discuss potential problems in advance whenever possible, using what I call “Proactive Parenting Practices.” When unanticipated problems do arise, parents should be ready to deal with those problems by establishing rules and consequences for any future misbehavior online using Reactive Parenting Practices. Both proactive parenting and reactive parenting should be invoked using sound “Authoritative Parenting” techniques which include setting limits and consequences for behavior (or misbehavior) within a loving, caring context where children are allowed and encouraged to express their opinions about both the problems and their solutions. Authoritative Parenting has been shown to lead to positive outcomes in many areas including our latest studies of the relationship between Internet and MySpace behaviors and parenting style. Children of Authoritative Parents are more successful in school, psychologically healthier, and face fewer online behavioral problems.

A related issue that we are now studying is the impact of the media diet children consume daily on their physical and psychological health.  We surveyed (online) 357 parents of children between six months and 12 years old and found that even after accounting for differences in the age and gender of the children and parents, plus the parent’s Body Mass Index, education, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and marital status, the amount of media (regardless of the media type) predicted poor physical and psychological health of the child, irrespective of the foods the child typically consumed.  Children that watched more media did eat more unhealthy foods, but media usage predicted poor health.  This should be a concern to all of us.

Copyright, 2009, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $35 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.