Lenore Skenazy: 'Stranger danger' online over-exaggerated

A recent piece on a popular parenting website warns that kids are at grave risk of being approached online by strangers. It quotes an anti-rape advocacy organization: “At any given moment ... there are 50,000 offenders attempting to have contact with children” online.

The article then suggests that all parents channel their inner “helicopter” and watch their kids’ every keystroke, right down to their texts.

Comments on the piece run the gamut from “I kind of agree; I would hover if my kid were walking into a strip club, and that’s basically the internet” to “It feels hard for me to get worked up about kids chatting with ‘strangers.’ I mean, does that include other kids? If so, I mean, really? What’s the harm?”

That commenter added: “But I definitely don’t think giving total free reign with no oversight is the right way either. It’s just so hard to know. A good porn blocker goes a long way.”

That was pretty much the response of the experts I asked to read the piece, too.

St. Francis College Sociology professor Emily Horowitz, author of two books on sex offenses, says that “sexual crimes against children have been decreasing for over 20 years” — even as more and more children have been going online. So fear of “stranger danger” online is as misplaced as the stranger danger fear offline. “Children are almost never abducted by strangers, even with the advent of online games and social media,” Horowitz says.

Anne Collier, executive director of the Net Safety Collaborative and a longtime writer/researcher about child safety online, reassures parents, “We know from academic research that the vast majority of kids have absolutely no contact with predators.” She adds that the sad truth is kids who are more at risk offline — often because of a troubled home life — are the ones more at risk online, too.

“The No. 1 safety tip is to talk to your kids and be in just as much communication about their online experiences as their offline lives,” says Collier. “Keep those communication channels open and try not to be governed by fear.”

Or, as I like to put it: Talk, don’t stalk.

Clearly, this is a matter that all parents will decide for themselves and adjust depending on the circumstances. But one reality check to note is that the “50,000 predators online” number has not been substantiated. In fact, a fascinating piece on NPR a few years back said to beware the 50,000 stat whenever it pops up. It has been trotted out as a believable-yet-scary number over and over. (NPR called it the “Goldilocks number.”) As early as 1985, advocacy organizations warned that “as many as 50,000 children are abducted a year” — an absurd figure, according to the FBI.

Bottom line: The internet is not perfectly safe, because nothing is. Take the precautions that make sense for you and your family, understanding that trust is also a safeguard. Especially as your kids get older, says Horowitz, “If they find out you’re (secretly) following them, it will harm your ability to communicate with them.”

So talk to your kids about their online and offline lives. Do so understanding that just as we as a country are starting to reexamine the idea that kids can never be safe outside, we must examine the idea that they can never be safe playing Minecraft.

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