Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Think of the children

The British press is going through a feeding frenzy, as tabloids and mainstream media outlets try to outdo each other in reporting the threats posed to children online. The Daily Mail warns us that "Millions of girls using Facebook, Bebo and Myspace 'at risk' from paedophiles and bullies". Even by its low standards, this has got to be the most misleading headline in the history of Internet reporting. The Daily Express tells us that "Parents warned of website predators". A word of advice to the good folks at the Daily Express, update your stock photographs to reflect that the century has changed.

At the heart of the media feeding frenzy is a report by Ofcom (full report here, thanks DaihĂ­!) that warns parents about the potential dangers of social networking sites. What seems to be a measured study has been translated by parts of the press into yet another cluster of accusations that the Internet is filled with predators and filth.

This of course comes on the tails of the Byron Review entitled "Safer Children in a Digital World". I have finally gone through the report, and I am troubled by some of the broader claims made. While I applaud the attempt to make evidence-based policy-making decisions, I am afraid that the Byron report is long on speculation, and short on sound evidence. I was particularly struck by the Review's treatment of gaming. While it recognises that there is little evidence on the harms of violent video games, it goes on to make some tenuous links to ethnographic evidence that it may be harmful. Online gaming was cited as a particular worry, although here the evidence was even thinner.

The public perception of the internet as a bad place is one of my pet-peeves. I am amazed by how easy it is for journalists to paint the online world as a scary place full of monsters. There is a sector of the British press that relishes any chance to scare parents silly about the dangers of the virtual world, when children are still vulnerable from the usual threats. Bullying and abuse take place as they did before the internet, and the actual recorded cases of grooming do not warrant the volume of the coverage.

Should we think of the children? Of course! The Byron Review is not bad, it has some sensible ideas about online safety, privacy, and self-regulation, but responses should be proportional to the actual threat posed.

Update: Open Education has two excellent posts on the Byron Report, one on the Internet findings, the other one on the video game issues (thanks to Tom Hanson for the heads up).

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