A recent Berkman Center report sheds new light on the actual effect of the internet on child safety. What is refreshing is its attempt to put the often demonized risk of internet use into perspective. The Task Force found that these risks are complex and multifaceted and are in most cases not significantly different than those offline. In addition, although urging for stricter protection for minors on the internet, the following findings were made:
Illegal Content – Although the internet increases the availability of harmful, problematic and illegal content, it does not necessarily increase minors’ exposure. Although unwanted exposure does occur online, those most likely to be exposed are those seeking it out. In addition, as minors get older, they themselves contribute to some of these problems.
Risk – Minors are not equally at risk online. The risk depends on the common uses of social media by minors and the psychological makeup of minors who use them. Therefore, the most at risk are those that engage in risky behaviour, and already have difficulties in other parts of their lives. A 13-year old who lied about her age, met someone on Myspace.com and then was assaulted by him in a Texas parking lot provides an example of this, in that by lying about her age, she put herself at risk.
Social Networking Sites – Surprisingly social networking sites are not the most common space for solicitation and unwanted exposure to problematic content, but are frequently used in peer-to-peer harassment, most likely because they are broadly adopted by minors and are used primarily to reinforce pre-existing social relations. The recent Drew case is an example of this. What occurred was a result of a pre-existing bullying situation and the use made of MySpace was simply a continuation of it. MySpace did not create the situation, but was rather used as a means to propagate it.
Finally, the Report highlights the need for collaborative effort and that protecting minors is not just one stakeholder’s responsibility. This is reasonable. For even when one stakeholder (say MySpace) has safeguards in place, it is still not enough. The Drew case demonstrates this as MySpace’s efforts to prevent internet abuse was futile. Lori Drew acted in violation of the MySpace guidelines, registering herself as a member to obtain a fictitious account. This was done despite the fact that MySpace required prospective users to provide truthful and accurate registration, refrain from using any information obtained from Myspace services to harass, abuse or harm other people, and to refrain from promoting info that they knew was misleading.