It’s hard to find stories in the media about kids and the Internet that don’t propagate fearful messages. Parents are bombarded with stories about depression and isolation, and the imminent dangers lurking behind the screen.
Ann Collier’s NetFamilyNews blog provides a refreshing antidote. Collier writes with insight and depth about parents’ negotiating the tricky territory between allowing kids freedom enough to learn on their own and their instinct to protect kids from harm.
Recently, Collier raised some intriguing questions about Dr. David Finkelhor’s presentation called “The Internet, Youth Deviance and the Problem of Juvenoia.” Finkelhor is the director of the Crimes Against Childrens Research Center.
Collier summarized a few of Finkehor’s points — which we rarely hear hear or read — about the benefits of kids using the Internet:
- Reduction of boredom and alienation – the Internet is engaging to kids; it may help distract them from negative emotional states; those who don’t feel a sense of mastery in other environments may feel mastery online….
- Changing patterns of independence exploration – armchair adventuring; the actual risks/dangers may be less immediate online; on the Internet, a few more steps need to occur before things happen, “interactions are more drawn out, given to less impulsiveness”
- Increased deviance detection – the offense, whatever it is, has a trail of evidence; bullying becomes not just a rumor or hearsay; maybe because of anxiety lots of parents are having more norms-improving discussions with kids than they’ve had before.
- Surveillance effect – we’ve all had to abdicate some degree of privacy, but that may not be all bad; the knowledge you can be tracked has discouraged deviance as well. It allows parents to be more in touch with children and children with one another, which might reduce some kinds of dangers.
Finkelhor emphasizes the point that most harm to kids “occurs at the hands of intimates and offenders known to children” and “how little harm is at the hand of strangers.” Then why the focus on stranger danger? “Strangers are always easier to demonize than friends and family,” he says.
Collier explains that parents might feel trepidation about the “new environments where they have little influence” partly because they buy into the “predator panic” and that the “so-called unknown territory becomes the focus of our fears.”
Collier ends her two-part series on this subject with sage advice:
The No. 1 online-safety and fear-amelioration tip has always been and will always be: Talk with your kids. In person is always best, but it can really help to do so on cellphones, in Facebook, on Xbox Live, and in virtual worlds too now. And if you feel hesitant for any reason, parents and educators, your kids would probably be happy to walk you through how to do that, which would be good for them too!