Four families with young daughters who were abused, molested or raped by someone they met on MySpace have filed suits against News Corporation (who owns MySpace). These are tragic examples of the real dangers that online communication tools can facilitate. Having had hours of discussions with parents, students, administrators and colleagues about the dangers of social networking sites, these stories make the dangers startlingly real.
Trying to think about this in a balanced way, I wonder how fair it is to hold MySpace responsible for these young women meeting these awful men. Yes, they used MySpace. But didn’t they also use computers, web browsers, phones, cars, the subway, public places like restaurants, parks and more to meet? Are they all to blame? Is this the same as overweight people suing McDonald’s? It is very difficult to understand who is at fault here. Who is liable? In the end does it actually matter, these girls have already suffered, and there is no recovery. On a forum on Slashdot someone suggested the parents be charged with negligence. Is there really anyone to blame other than the criminals?
Most often I tell families that the dangers are real. They must deal with that. It is however much more rare than one might realize. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators of sexual violence against children are victims’ parents. Read this great article highlighting the data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s also important to note that 79% of reported online abuse occurred at home.
The conclusion of the article really summed it up well,
The question is, “Are we going to take a “zero risk” approach to using technology and the tools of the Web?”
We don’t take a “zero risk” approach with our sports programs where the chance of injury, paralysis, and, in rare cases, death, is always present. We don’t take that approach with field trips where students travel to museums and historical sites in locations where they might be touched by crime. We don’t take that approach with recess on our playgrounds, or transporting our kids to and from school.
We can never eliminate all risk; but there are ways to maximize our students’ safety while using these incredibly powerful tools. Each tool needs to be analyzed individually to ascertain its benefits and the specific risks it might present. From there, thoughtful people can find solutions to the student safety issues that may arise.
As educational leaders we need to be safety conscious. We need to be prudent, reasonable; but we won’t live in fear and we won’t act from fear.
It is by opening doors, not closing them that we create new possibilities for our children and new futures for ourselves.
Would love to hear your thoughts, and how your school or home is responding to the sensational media coverage.
p.s. In other conspiracy theories, doesn’t network television have a vested interest in having parents be afraid of the Internet? It keeps the kids watching TV instead of YouTube when the parents take away the computer. I know that one is way out there, but had to toss it in the mix.