WASHINGTON — Are young people really at risk when using the Internet, or is the threat overblown?
Tuesday is Safer Internet Day, and one focus will be distinguishing the differences between risk and harm.
While Safer Internet Day has been sponsored by the European Commission for the past 11 years, the first major U.S. event will be held Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
“Certainly there are risks associated with going online, just like there is with anything else you might do, but the fact is most people aren’t harmed … or if they are, they can usually deal with it,” says Larry Magid, co- director of ConnectSafely.org and co-chair of the U.S. Safer Internet Day Committee.
Magid is also a technology analyst with CBS News, CNET and Forbes.
“When we talk about online risk, we sometimes confuse severity with prevalence,” Magid says. “Certainly there are horrible cases of cyberbullying, but that doesn’t mean it’s common.”
Magid says most people use the Internet in a positive way, including most young people.
“Sure, there’s a possibility that horrible things can go wrong, but the fact is that they usually don’t,” he says.
Restricting young people from all Internet use would cause genuine harm, according to Magid.
“We can’t hold back an entire generation of kids just because there’s the possibility of that something could go wrong. That’s true in sports; it’s true in crossing the street; it’s true in any aspect of life,” he says.
But what about the case…
In instances of children being harmed in connection to the Internet, Magid says studies show typically there are other issues at play in the child’s life, “whether it’s their psychosocial makeup, their risk tolerance, or something in their life that causes them to take extraordinary risk. …
“So to assume that all children are equally at risk is like saying everyone is equally at risk of malaria,” Magid says. “That may be true in certain tropical countries, but it’s not true everywhere.”
To stretch the public-safety metaphor, he says Internet safety programs are often the equivalent of inoculating people who go to Chicago, while failing to vaccinate those traveling to high-risk regions.
“The fact is, we don’t have a lot of data to show a lot of kids have been harmed,” Magid says.
Using the Internet for social good
Magid acknowledges that, with so much attention paid to the rare instances of children suffering genuine harm associated with Internet use, tweaking public perception is a goal of Safer Internet Day.
“People are submitting good things they’ve done or know about to improve the Internet, or to use technology to make the world a better place,” Magid says.
“We aim to make this … the most positive, powerful one yet by reaching classroom and communities with accurate information on how youth and adults are using the Internet, mostly as a force for good,” says Connect Safely.org’s other co- director, Anne Collier.
Safer Internet Day U.S. receives financial support from Microsoft, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Sprint, Symantec, Trend Micro and Twitter.