What can I say about the dangers of social networking sites?

Today the Grand Forks Herald, my local paper, ran a front page article entitled “Online threats: Dangers lurk on web site.” The article focused mainly on myspace and accounts of sexual predators in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area (the article was written for the St. Paul Pioneer Press).

Because I am an advocate for educational use of Internet communication tools, such articles make me nervous. I guess I am nervous because I fear parents may overreact to such reports and balk when teachers want to engage students in educational Internet projects. There is no denying that some level of danger must be associated with online activity. Those with criminal intent will find “locations” that allow easy and relatively “risk free” access to potential victims. The Internet is particularly dangerous because we lack cues to the identity of individuals we interact with (e.g., it is obvious I am a middle-aged male when encountered in person, but my written words would not contain this information) and we may have a false sense of security when interacting from a location where we feel safe (e.g., our home).

I would guess:

  • students are more closely supervised at school than at home
  • school are more active in limiting access to dangerous sites
  • educators are more likely than parents to address Internet safety as a “life skill”

Of course, these arguments are not universally true and parents still make the final decision when the safety of their children is at stake.

I have been attempting to think of an argument that will put parents at ease. No, actually I probably do not want to put parents at ease. I want them to think of Internet skills as essential and use of the Internet as universal. I also want them to understand what the risks are and to understand that risks will exist and perhaps be greater outside of the school setting. I want their children to experience the benefits of the Internet and be aware of the dangers.

Here is an idea. Internet activity clearly involves a small level of risk. In this regard, it is very much like driving a car. We learn to drive because we tend to believe driving is an essential life skill and because we accept driving as a recreational activity. As drivers, we would be foolish if we did not avoid situations and behaviors that are unnecessarily dangerous and if we did not take safety precautions. Truth is, we are sometimes foolish – we may drive too fast or without seat belts. Still, we accept the dangers of driving and expect our children to develop driving skills.

How should children be prepared for activities that involve opportunities and dangers? I did not teach my children to drive. They were taught be “professional educators.” Perhaps the same should be true in developing Internet skills.

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