I've been mulling over how to write this post for several weeks now, and am still at a loss for words. A study issued by internet security company McAfee found that about two-thirds of mothers of teens in the United States are just as, or more, concerned about their teenagers’ online safety as they are about drunk driving and experimenting with drugs.
This is so wrong that I don't know where to start. Luckily, Larry Magdid did all the work for me, breaking down the actual statistics related to the risks of online predators, drug use, and drunk driving among youth. Of course you know the bottom line: Teens are MUCH more likely to experience harm as a result of drunk driving or drug use than they are by surfing the web, or even visiting MySpace. Yet, somehow, parents are nervous as hell about something that really is quite safe. Being online, while it can have negative consequences, is not nearly as detrimental to a young person's health as substance use. We can't say it enough.
This is one of those cases where it is tempting to blame the media -- newscasts, To Catch a Predator, talk shows -- they all do a great job of scaring the crap out of adults by sensationalizing how "easy" it is for adults to target teens for sexual exploit. But research shows that the teens are smarter than their potential aggressors: as this article states, online sexual predation is extremely rare and teens aren't really even distressed by the infrequent sexual solicitations that they receive online.
But the issue is more complex than that -- in order for parents to buy into this media bias, they have to lack the basic understanding of how the media work and the realities of its impact. Just as I stress the need for schools to integrate internet safety/etiquette/etc. into its curricula, I also feel it is important to reach out to parents who aren't sure about the true ins and outs of interactive media. While there is no question that parents can be harder to reach than their children, this study demonstrates that their education is just as important if not moreso.
In the meantime, I hope that parents don't forgo conversations about drunk driving and drug use, replacing them with rehashed versions of the "don't talk to strangers" speech. Sure, that has it's place to, but let's not misplace our concerns of where the dangers really lie.