By Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, McClatchy-Tribune
This is an excerpt from the book “CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media,” by Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, MD (American Academy of Pediatrics, $14.95).
Online risks to our kids fall into a few broad groups — personal harm, social issues, commerce issues, and direct and secondary risks from media exposure. If we were to rank these risks in terms of actual threat to our kids, from most to least likely to occur, they would be ordered as follows:
- Direct risks: Media violence; exposure to inappropriate content (e.g., text, music, videos); dangerous and destructive behaviors (eg, cyberbullying, sexting)
- Secondary risks: Sexual precocity, drug abuse, eating disorders, body image issues
- Commerce issues: Marketing to kids, effect of ads on growth and development
- Social issues: Communication, isolation, privacy, depression, digital footprint
- Personal harm: Predator risks
It’s not just that the direct risks to our kids are more common than predator risks; we have to understand that the relative risk of the events at the bottom of the list occurring is far less than the events at the top of the list.
Online predators may be foremost on our minds as parents, but the reality is that only 1 in 7 kids are solicited by online predators. If you look closely at the 2005 study from the University of New Hampshire that produced these results, you’ll discover that most kids were not contacted by predators at all.
According to the study’s authors, approximately half of the encounters were from other youth and not intended to lure at all, but were simply lewd comments that were not at all at the level of intensity we think of for solicitation. The example the authors give, “What’s your bra size?” shows the discrepancy in how adults and kids view lewd. More importantly, the youth contacted were aptly able to handle the solicitation and did not report being fearful, indicating that education and awareness messages have been successful.
In contrast, cyberbullying has been reported by 40 percent of kids and is a growing problem, with short- and long-term issues in the daily lives of kids.
We don’t make our kids fearful of water because of the risk of drowning; we learn the risks and teach them to swim. It’s time we apply the same sound mentality to the dangers of the online world. We have to have a realistic handle on what the dangers are if we are to ward off risks thoughtfully.