The issue of online privacy and safety relates to two areas of NIST’s policies: the posting of media on the school’s online channels, and the privacy settings of those channels for student use. Like other top institutions, we maintain a general policy of openness in line with our broad minimal risk policy. (See how this relates to an online context: Online Safety Redefined: The 3 Key Elements)
Online privacy and safety is an important safety issue that deserves attention, but a great deal of research exists to demonstrate that the risks of access are minimal, particularly in educational contexts. Additionally, data on online predation indicates that online predators do not pose a more significant danger to children or teenagers than they would offline. The following research underlies that data:
- Early news reports on the dangers of internet predation utilized inaccurate reporting and baseless claims, in line with common fears surrounding the impact of technology. (See Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies)
- A commonly cited statistic claims that one in five minors is sexually propositioned. This number is based in a study that failed to distinguish between “propositions” from adults and adult-related conversations between peers: “other peers and young adults account for 90%-94% of solicitations in which approximate age is known”.
- Articles describing Myspace and other social media channels as havens for predators produced no tangible evidence to support those claims: “Social network sites do not appear to have increased the overall risk of solicitation”.
- Contrary to the image of children being deceived by online predators posing as teenagers, most “were aware that they were meeting an adult male”.
- Research reviews demonstrate that “the stereotype of the Internet child molester who uses trickery and violence to assault children is largely inaccurate”. (See Online “Predators” and Their Victims: Myths, Realities, and Implications for Prevention and Treatment) Rather, findings indicate that:
- Risk does not rise with use or content, but rather with engagement. Teenagers who engage in inappropriate online exchanges are at higher risk, whereas internet users of any age who do not do so face virtually no risk.
- Posting personal information in itself does not increase risk: “So, although Internet safety advocates worry that posting personal information exposes youths to online molesters, we have not found empirical evidence that supports this concern. It is interactive behaviors, such as conversing online with unknown people about sex, that more clearly create risk.”
- The spread of the Internet has not led to an increase in predation: “An important fact that supports caution in speculating about how the Internet has facilitated child molestation is that several sex crime and abuse indicators have shown marked declines during the same period that Internet use has been expanding.”
- Globally, there are no reported cases of predation in which an online predator unknown to the victim gained access through school-related channels. Contrastingly, a clear majority of reported cases exhibit consistent factors: the use of chatrooms or similar programs; inappropriate mutual engagement between the predator and victim, including a choice on the part of the victim to meet; and an age range between 12 to 17.
The lack of evidence to support serious risk associated with online content and use, combined with the lack of an association between school-related media and predation, is consistent with NIST’s minimal risk policy. To further mitigate any potential risk, the school implements clear digital citizenship principles into the curriculum.
What Does This Mean at NIST?
To further reduce the minimal risk that exists from online activity, we take several steps to educate and counsel children, empowering them to act responsibly and safely.
What Does This Mean for Parents?
Though research shows that parents needn’t be more concerned about online predation than any other form of predation, there is still a real risk. However, that risk can be heavily reduced through a few simple approaches:
- Explain what is appropriate: Talk to your children about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate subjects, the sharing of personal information, and relationships between children and adults, whether online or in other contexts.
- Be involved in your children’s online life: Take a positive interest in what they do online, and encourage them to share their activities with you.
- Establish clear expectations: Be honest and expect honesty by asking your children to tell you if they become involved in inappropriate interactions. Invading their privacy may be harmful, causing them to hide their online activities.
- Watch for warning signs: Being secretive, withdrawing from normal activities or dramatic changes in behavior may indicate that something is wrong.
By taking these steps, and being open and positive about your children’s online life, you can dramatically reduce any risk, empowering them to be safe and smart, both online and offline.