Thanks to my uncle, Ron Henley, for alerting me to a new report supported by NSBA (the National School Boards Association) and others which supports many of the contentions I’ve been advancing for over a year in presentations about safe digital social networking. According to David Cassel’s August 7th article about the report, “Schoolboards: net dangers over-rated; bring social networks to school:”

It [the NSBA report] warns that many fears about the internet are just overblown. “School district leaders seem to believe that negative experiences with social networking are more common than students and parents report,” the study reports. For example, more than half the districts think sharing personal information has been “a significant problem” in their schools — “yet only 3% of students say they’ve ever given out their email addresses, instant messaging screen names or other personal information to strangers.”

This conclusion matches the responses of many K-12 teachers in Spiro, Oklahoma, who I visited with on Tuesday afternoon this week about Internet Safety and Cyberbullying Prevention. In response to the question, “What do you think is the #1 thing that puts kids at risk from online solicitation by a sexual predator?” the top responses were:

  • Using IM
  • Being in a chat room
  • Using MySpace
  • Being on the Internet

Believing that merely “being on the Internet” or just “using instant messaging” puts one at risk to be solicited by a sexual predator is common among the teachers and other adults with whom I regularly work in Oklahoma. There is a grain of truth to this perception, but only a grain… The following comparison may be appropriate. When a person gets into an automobile, are they putting themselves at risk for getting into an injury accident or being killed in an auto accident? Well, it is true that if someone NEVER gets into a car, they are much less likely to be injured or killed in a motor vehicle accident. They could still be struck and killed by a car as they walk down the street as a pedestrian, but even that risk can be mitigated by the person choosing to be careful when crossing busy intersections and taking other precautions.

Taken to an extreme, a person who fears getting into an accident in or with an automobile might choose to NEVER leave their home and venture outside into the wider world. Certainly they might be “safer” from the possible dangers posed by motor vehicles if they stayed locked up in their house or apartment, but their opportunities for life experiences would also be sharply limited.

This comparison is helpful when we think of students, or people more generally, being online and potentially putting themselves at risk for various dangers. Simply being online, using instant messaging, visiting MySpace or having your own MySpace page does not correlate to a statistically high probability that the person will experience an online form of “stranger danger.” The CHOICES we make when driving or riding in a car make a BIG difference, just as the CHOICES we make when we are online make a difference when it comes to potential dangers we face. Do you choose to drink impairing quantities of alcohol and then drive? Do you get into a car with someone who is driving drunk? Do you always wear your seatbelt when riding in or driving a car? Your answers to these questions have a huge impact on the statistical probability of whether or not you will be injured or killed in auto accident, or involved in an auto accident at all. Similarly, the CHOICES Internet users of all ages make when they are online make a HUGE difference when it comes to the probabilities they will encounter online dangers.

If a person avoids going on the Internet ENTIRELY it is highly unlikely they’ll ever receive an electronic solicitation from a sexual predator, but do we want to encourage people to become extreme neo-luddites and refuse to use digital technologies entirely? I don’t think so. The information, communication, and vocational landscape of the twenty-first century is increasingly digital. Suggesting that people should entirely boycott all Internet use is likely to be as effective in supporting the development of relevant life-skills as the ostrich putting its head in the sand to deal with the potential danger of an approaching predator.

ostrich putting its head in the sand

Dean Shareski pointed out in his June post, “Just the Facts,” the critical behavior which people can and do CHOOSE to engage in which puts them at the greatest risk for online sexual solicitations: TALKING ABOUT SEX. As Dean wrote:

Those are the facts. Let me repeat, IT IS NOT GIVING OUT PERSONAL INFORMATION OR BLOGGING THAT PUTS KIDS AT RISK. How about a sign like that in your schools?

Sadly, this fact does not “jive” with many of the presentations I hear and hear about in our schools about Internet safety. Many of these presentations give parents, teachers, and students the mistaken impression that “the entire Internet is evil, so stay off it.” There certainly are offensive and reprehensible things on the Internet, and REAL dangers lurking here, but there are also dangers to be found at your local mall or Wal-Mart parking lot after dark. The CHOICES we make are important. If people go looking for trouble, they are likely to find it, in real life and on the Internet. I think we need to help more people clarify their perceptions about the REAL risks of digital social networking.

Interestingly, my cursory search on the NSBA website this evening did not turn up any references to this research report by Grunwald Associates. According to the Grunwald website, the actual report costs “$9,000 – $12,000, based on company size,” so unfortunately it is doubtful we’ll be able to publicly quote and debate the report’s text. Sadly, having a price tag like that attached to a piece of research effectively makes the document “classified” for most people. I’m sure that is how Grunwald Associates makes its money, but as a person very interested in the ideas of the report, I’d like to read the ACTUAL report rather than just read ABOUT it in an article like this one from David Cassel. I shared my sentiments on this in December in the post, “Charging for that report? I’ll pass.”

At least David has given us a glimpse into the content of the report. Will we see a reference to this on the NSBA website anytime soon? Will school board members around the United States pay attention and start asking the leaders of their curriculum and technology departments to support safe environments for students to engage in digital social networking?

I hope so, but I am not going to hold my breath.

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7 Responses to Clarifying perceptions about digital social networking risks

  1. Dean Mattson says:

    It says the “more detailed market research report” is being sold by Grunwald Associates but I thought the report you can find here was pretty good:

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve been thinking along similar lines for many months now, but I haven’t really said anything because this is something you don’t want to be wrong about. I’ve been looking for hard numbers on what is exactly safe and unsafe to do online, and it’s good to see evidence that although we need to be careful, we don’t need to be continually fearful.

  2. Mark Ahlness says:

    Hi Wes, maybe Cassel just added it to his article, but there is a direct link to
    the study in his second paragraph:

    Thanks for this post – now off to send it to my school board 🙂 – Mark

  3. Wesley Fryer says:

    Wow, thanks so much for pointing that out Mark! I must have missed it… excellent! I retract my previous statements about this report being “classified” by the high cost! 🙂

  4. Hi Wes,

    I will be co-presenting with Peter Grunwald at T+L and would like to use some quotes from this blog entry (pasted below)in my presentation. My part of the presentation is more “in-the-field” experience that talks about how teens are using social networking and the frustrations they face when sites are blocked. Would you mind my using the following?

    “Believing that merely “being on the Internet” or just “using instant messaging” puts one at risk to be solicited by a sexual predator is common among the teachers.”

    “When a person gets into an automobile, are they putting themselves at risk for getting into an injury accident or being killed in an auto accident? Well, it is true that if someone NEVER gets into a car, they are much less likely to be injured or killed in a motor vehicle accident.”

    Of course, I will happily credit you, your blog, etc. however you would prefer.

    Thanks in advance. Great post!

  5. Wesley Fryer says:

    Elizabeth: By all means, please use the quotations in your presentation! The content in my blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Only license, so technically you don’t have to ask permission to use the content here– I’m glad to know you’re finding it useful and using it, however! More info about attribution guidance for my blog is available on the following page, which I have as a link at the top of my blog:

    If you’re interested in having me videoconference or Skype into that session or others you’re presenting please let me know, and if it works with my schedule I’ll be glad to assist synchronously with your presentation as well. 🙂

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