Last year, 49 state attorneys general created The Internet Safety Technical Task Force to study the problem of how to keep kids safer online. A year later, the task force's findings have caused some controversy. Namely that the biggest threat to kids on the internet comes from their peers. Task force member and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute Stephen Balkam discusses the study.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case concerning the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA. During the 10 years of its existence, COPA has had many days in court, but the act, which would have made it a crime to make sexually explicit material online accessible to minors, is dead. The fact is, support for COPA waned over the years, even among anti-pornography groups, because its approach to the problem had become increasingly outdated. And now a new study suggests that some of our most common perceptions of the risk to children online may be outdated, too. Last year, 49 attorneys-general asked a special task force to consider ways to make kids safer online, but first, the task force had to investigate the nature of the threat kids face. The 250-page report found that actually children who spend time online have more to fear from each other than from grownups prowling the Net. Steven Balkam is the CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, one of the members of that task force. He says that the findings were quite a surprise.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Well, it does seem counterintuitive, doesn't it? I think we've had quite a number of years of programs like To Catch a Predator, so that we have this sense, this feeling that there are these awful men out to get our innocent children, and if we leave them in front of a computer screen too long, this is probably what will happen. Yet, one of the things that the research bore out was that by and large, over 90 percent of kids just deleted messages that would come from creepy adults, as they would say. So they've got the stranger danger message. We have drummed that into them for over a decade, not just online but offline as well. The other thing that struck us was that where there were the rare but awful cases, they often involved what are described as at-risk kids. These are kids possibly from broken homes or from parents who don't care.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it echoes their same vulnerability in real life.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Right. Of course there are predators and of course there are these extraordinary cases where kids are lured away, but, thankfully, the number of cases is remarkably low. I believe that we have gotten much better, and the industry has gotten much better, at creating filters and tools and parental controls. So, for instance, in 2000, there were no parental controls in either of the two major operating systems, either Windows or Safari. Now, they're built in. All cell phone operators provide parental controls.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You found that one in a hundred kids might be subject to physical danger from a predator that they met online, but you found that one in three kids, or up to 45 percent of them online, have been subject to cyberbullying.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Online harassment, where kids start with saying something hurtful in the playground, then continues through text messaging through posting nasty things up on their MySpace accounts through to spreading photographs that had been doctored, maybe putting a kid’s head on a nude photograph, these sorts of things are exploding. And, yes, some kids are very much at risk and potentially could, at the far end of the extreme, take their own lives. What’s far more likely is that they will have emotional reactions to this. Perhaps they may stop eating. They may just switch off and no longer participate at school, or just basically have a very, very bad self-image, or might actually bully back. And that’s something that the research is starting to show is that many kids who are involved in cyberbullying themselves have been bullied.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, it’s interesting. Your study found that MySpace and Facebook, which were involved in the study, didn't pose that much of a risk, at least from predators to kids. Now, they have a vested interest in the notion that it’s safe out there. What do you say to the criticism that they may have had too much of a role in the research?
STEPHEN BALKAM: MySpace worked to convene it, they helped to bring everyone together and they made sure that there were regular reports to the AGs. But the report itself was written by Professor John Palfrey at the Harvard University. So, yes, they were on the committee, but then there were also vendors on the committee. There were folks who wanted to sell age verification [LAUGHS] technologies on the committee, and they had a vested interest in making sure the report came out a different way. So we did have all the voices there around the table. I suppose the one voice we didn't have from the beginning were the AGs themselves, which I think is a pity in some ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or at least a couple of the attorneys general found that the study downplayed the risks kids face online.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Well [SIGHS], you know, I think there are so many different vested interests here and so many different perspectives. Now, obviously, law enforcement are at the bleeding edge of this issue. They see the cases. They get the gut-wrenching stories. And, of course, if you deal with that day after day, well, you have a different perspective, let's say, than folks who are doing it from a more academic level.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are the lessons, then, you take away from this study? What can be and what should be done to protect kids?
STEPHEN BALKAM: First of all, there’s no silver bullet that’s going to solve this issue. That’s got to be the number one takeaway. The second is far more cooperation has got to happen between law enforcement, industry, the academic community, and we need to understand far better the psychological issues that are at play here. And so, social workers and psychologists and folks who work with at-risk kids have got to be brought into the discussion. I would also argue that parents have got to set aside some time to get to know the technologies, and if kids go over the mark, for there to be sanctions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I understand that at least one of your daughters doesn't want you to friend her on Facebook.
STEPHEN BALKAM: That's right. My older daughter, who’s 23, has pretty much said, no, Dad, I don't want you on my Facebook account. I don't want you to see what people put up on my wall. And then -
[LAUGHTER] - I have a 12-year-old who wants a Facebook account, and I say, no. The terms of service say you have to be 13. And – [BROOKE LAUGHS] – I'm sorry, you’re not going to be able to get on until you are 13. She hates the fact that I work for the Family Online Safety Institute because no other parent understands that that’s the case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Stephen Balkam is the CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute and a member of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. Thanks very much.
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