Many youth in the United States have fully integrated the Internet into their daily lives. For them, the Internet is a positive and powerful space for socializing, learning, and engaging in public life. Minors use the Internet and other digital technologies to communicate with friends and peers, to connect with religious leaders and mentors, to conduct research for school assignments, to follow the progress of favorite sports teams or political candidates and participate in communities around shared interests, to read the news and find health information, to learn about colleges and the military, and in countless other productive ways. Most minors do not differentiate between their lives off and online, in part because the majority of online social interactions involving minors do not involve people who are not part of their offline lives.
That quote is from the first paragraph of the Introduction to the just released report Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies: Final Report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force to the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking of State Attorneys General of the United States. If you work with teens, or with people who work with teens, you should stop what you are doing, download this report, and read it.
Why, do I say that you should drop everything and read? Because, this report helps put to rest many of the fears propagated over the past several years about teen use of social networking. It looks directly at what is actually going on with teens in online environments, why teens behave the way they do online, and includes useful recommendations for supporting teen online needs. For example by reading the report you will learn:
- How media has advanced fears about social networking and teens and how that can have a negative impact on supporting and helping teens effectively. The report states, “There is some concern that the mainstream media amplifies these fears, rendering them disproportionate to the risks youth face. This creates a danger that known risks will be obscured, and reduces the likelihood that society will address the factors that lead to known risks, and often inadvertently harm youth in unexpected ways.”
- The connection between face-to-face behaviors and online behaviors and how it is common that what teens encounter online in the form of bullying or sexual conversation is an extension of what happens in face-to-face environments. The report states, “The risk profile for the use of different genres of social media depends on the type of risk, common uses by minors, and the psychosocial makeup of minors who use them. Social network 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 role that family, home, and community environments has on teen use of social networking resources, and how what goes on in family, home, and community environments is an indicator of teen behavior and can be a cause for inappropriate behavior online. The report states, “Minors are not equally at risk online. Those who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives. The psychosocial makeup of and family dynamics surrounding particular minors are better predictors of risk than the use of specific media or technologies.”
- Why it is important for adults to learn about technology and talk to teens about technology in order to help guarantee safe and smart use. The report states, “Parents and caregivers should be conscious of the common risks that minors face and avoid focusing on rare or hypothetical dangers. Their strategies should center on helping their children understand and navigate the technologies and creating a safe context in which their children will turn to them when there are problems. Trust and open lines of communication are often the best tools for combating risks.”
This report gives me hope because it provides data commissioned by state governmental officials and gathered and analyzed by reputable experts. The data and analysis highlight that we can’t blame technology for the behaviors of teens. Technology is a part of teen lives and does provide outlets for behaviors. But, technology doesn’t cause those behaviors. The world teens live in does that.
Read the report as a way to educate yourself about what is going on online. Read the report so you have reputable information to pass on to those with whom you work. Read the report so you can advocate for teens. Read the report in order to make sure your library or school has the resources teens need in order grow into successful adults. Read the report.