Press Releases That Cause Panic

The problem with statistics and numbers is that people can spin them any way they want. The glass can be half empty or half full. I was asked in an interview for Totally Wired whether I think the online predator issue is overblown. I’m sure it’s not for any family that has had an incident happen, but the reality is that more children are abducted by someone they know, usually an estranged parent or relative, than by a complete stranger. Out of the 800,000 kids that are reported missing each year by the Justice Department, only 150 cases involve “stereotypical kidnappings,” in which a child is taken by a stranger, held for ransom, or killed. Today John Walsh, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Cox Communications issued a press release about their latest internet survey of 1,070 teens age 13 to 17. Here’s what they found:

Teens are increasingly active online and at potential risk of falling prey to online predators.* A large majority of teens (71%) have established online profiles (including those on social networking sites such as MySpace, Friendster and Xanga), up from 61% in 2006.

* 69% of teens regularly receive personal messages online from people they don’t know and most of them don’t tell a trusted adult about it.

* Teens readily post personal info online. 64% post photos or videos of themselves, while more than half (58%) post info about where they live. Females are far more likely than male teens to post personal photos or videos of themselves (70% vs. 58%).

* Nearly one in 10 teens (8%) has posted his or her cell phone number online.

* Overall, 19% of teens report they have been harassed or bullied online, and the incidence of online harassment is higher (23%) among 16 and 17 year-olds. Girls are more likely to be harassed or bullied than boys (21% vs. 17%).

Parents and guardians are becoming more involved in monitoring their teens’ Internet use and talking to them about online safety.

* Parental awareness of their teens’ online activities has risen significantly. This year, 25% of teens say their parents know “little” or “nothing” about what they do online, down from 33% last year.

* 41% of teens report their parents talk to them “a lot” about Internet safety (up five points over 2006), and three out of four say their parents have talked to them in the past year about the potential dangers of posting personal info. The level of parental involvement is higher for younger teens and girls, although it has increased across all age groups and both genders.

* Teens whose parents have talked to them “a lot” about Internet safety are more concerned about the risks of sharing personal info online than teens whose parents are less involved. For instance, 65% of those whose parents have not talked to them about online safety post info about where they live, compared to 48% of teens with more involved parents.

* Teens whose parents have talked to them “a lot” about online safety are less likely to consider meeting face to face with someone they met on the Internet (12% vs. 20%).

Many teens are unconcerned about the dangers of sharing personal info online.

* A majority of teens (58%) don’t think posting photos or other personal info on social networking sites is unsafe.

* Nearly half of teens (47%) aren’t worried about others using their personal info in ways they don’t want (although that represents a 10-percentage-point improvement over 2006).

* About half (49%) are unconcerned posting personal info online might negatively affect their future.

Teens are showing some signs of making safer, smarter choices online.

* While 16% of teens say they’ve considered meeting face to face with someone they’ve talked to only online, that marks a significant drop compared to the 30% of teens who were considering such a meeting in 2006. In 2007, 8% of teens say they actually have met in person with someone from the Internet, down from 14% in 2006.

* When they receive online messages from someone they don’t know, 60% of teens say they usually respond only to ask who the person is. Compared to the 2006 survey, there was a 10-percentage-point increase in teens ignoring such messages (57% vs. 47%). Still, nearly a third of teens (31%) say they usually reply and chat with people they don’t know, and only 21% tell a trusted adult when they receive such messages.

I think that if law enforcement had their way, teens would never post photos of themselves or any other revealing information online that *might* attract predators. While I think their intentions are good and they genuinely want to protect kids, it’s just not realistic. Teens love sharing photos or videos of themselves and connecting with friends from their school or other schools in their city or town. I’m not saying teens should post their home address and cell phone numbers. They shouldn’t! But if one of those photos is of a couple of friends from the soccer team in their school uniforms, is it really cause for panic?

If teens seem unconcerned with the risk, maybe they have somewhat of a point. When most teens (and I’m not talking about kids or tweens) are approached by an adult online, they figure out who it is, ignore that person if they’re weird or creepy, reject their friend request, or block them from further contact. The chance that one of these creepos, who has never even successfully made contact with a teen, is going to print his or her photo and hunt them down at their school, seems very, very small. Could it happen? I guess it could. But is that risk worth forbidding teens from posting or sharing any photos of themselves or their friends online?

I also think that it’s younger kids and tweens that are the most at risk for engaging with predators. They are more actively experimenting with identity, often pretending to be older, and are just more vulnerable to being sucked into a stranger’s manipulations. My hunch is that older teens who engage with strangers in this way are most likely engaging in other high risk activities.

The good news in this press release is that parents are talking more and teens are listening more, especially when it comes to meeting anyone they met online in person. When I read the press release in the way it has been framed and with the order of the statistics, it made me hit the panic button — and while I do think there’s a lot more education to be done with teens about what they choose to post online, I don’t think you can effectively do this when your at alert level “red.”

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