Research Downplays Personal Info Threat
By ANICK JESDANUN
Jul 12, 1:42 PM (ET)
NEW YORK (AP) - Almost every lesson on Internet safety warns against
posting personal information such as phone numbers and school names.
Researchers are now suggesting, though, that such advice, however
well-intentioned, doesn't necessarily make children safer from
predators and related threats.
In a recent study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and
Adolescent Medicine, researchers found no evidence that sharing
personal information increases the chances of online victimization,
such as unwanted sexual solicitation and harassment.
Rather, victimization is more likely to result from other online
behavior, such as talking about sex with people met online and
intentionally embarrassing someone else on the Internet.
"For a long time, we really didn't know," said Michele Ybarra, one of
the study's authors. "It made sense if you post or send information
you increase your risk. It's also a very easy message: Don't post
personal information and you'll be safe."
But Ybarra, who is president of the nonprofit Internet Solutions for
Kids, warned that parents and educators must now reassess the
lessons, saying resources may be wasted on tips that do not address
the underlying problem.
Instead of discouraging children from communicating, she said, the
better approach is to teach them about what at-risk behaviors to
avoid and warning signs to spot.
"We now need to be a lot more specific and accurate in our message,"
The research, published in February, was based on telephone surveys
of 1,500 Internet users ages 10 to 17.
In a separate study of 2,574 law-enforcement agencies, researchers
found that online sex crimes rarely involve offenders lying about
their ages or sexual motives. The 2004 study, published in Journal of
Adolescent Health, said offenders generally aren't strangers, and
pedophiles aren't luring unsuspecting children by pretending to be a
"Most of these sexual-victimization (cases) happen at the hands of
people they know, and a lot happen at the hands of peers," said Janis
Wolak, co-author of both studies and a researcher with the University
of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center.
The research also found that online victims tend to be teens with
troubles offline, such as poor relationships with parents, loneliness
"A lot of parents, I think, can breathe a big sigh of relief," said
Anne Collier, editor of the online newsletter Net Family News. "If
their kids are just socializing with their friends online, they are
going to be fine."
Nancy Willard, author of "Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens," said
predators don't need to be snatching kids by piecing together clues
from personal information when they can go for the low-hanging fruit
- the teens specifically engaging in at-risk behavior, such as
posting sexually provocative images in their profiles.
Many Internet-safety experts remain skeptical that parents and
educators can let their guard down on the posting of personal
information at sites like Facebook and News Corp. (NWS)'s MySpace.
"The only way they can get into trouble is if they end up meeting the
stranger, and that's going to come from giving out personal
information," said Susan Sachs, chief operating officer with the
nonprofit Common Sense Media. "It's pretty clear to connect the dots
between personal information and predators."
Monique Nelson, executive vice president of the Internet safety group
Web Wise Kids, said kids "don't have the sense of ... knowing when a
predator would be grooming them" so a blanket message against posting
personal information is a good first line of defense.
Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at the Pew Internet and
American Life Project, agrees that the attention on personal
information may be misplaced, but she said caution may still be wise.
"There is something to be said for preserving your privacy for other
reasons," Lenhart said, noting that too much information could come
to haunt teens when they apply for college or jobs. "Safety is not
necessarily the No. 1 reason."