WSJ Reports on Dangers for Kids in Cyberspace

Do we know what our kids are doing online? New research from the Rochester Institute of Technology suggests that we don’t—not really. The study, which looked at the habits of 40,000 kids in K-12th grade, outlines a number of surprising trends.

One of the biggest misconceptions, according to lead researcher Sam McQuade, of the RIT’s Center for Multidisciplinary Studies in Rochester, N.Y., is that the main risk to kids is adult sexual predators lurking in chat rooms. In reality, he says, the majority of “cyber offenses” are perpetrated by the kids’ peers. “Today’s paradigm is kids exploiting kids online,” said Dr. McQuade at a panel discussion this week in New York.

The study found that 48% of K-1st grade children interact with people online, and that so-called “cyberbullying” (where kids are mean to one another via instant messaging, email and such) starts as early as the 2nd grade. It might be hard to imagine how kids that young get exposed to that kind of interaction, but if they are playing Webkinz or other games on a parent’s or older sibling’s computer, the possibility exists.

Dr. McQuade says the research—which was funded in part by Symantec Corp., maker of Norton computer-security products—shows that parents cannot just “rely on echnological fixes,” such as porn-blocking software, to police kids’ online activities. The growth of mobile technology such as Web-enabled cellphones means that children can get online anywhere (with a friend’s device, if they don’t have one of their own).

Vanessa Van Petten, a young woman on the panel who authored a book and writes a blog about teen-parent relationships, says that simply banning computers isn’t practical, and advises parents to teach kids skills to handle the online world. It’s “just as important as the sex talk,” she said.

Do parents in your ministry realize how easily it is for kids to access the web? Do they realize the line is blurring between online and offline worlds? If you haven't already, check out some earlier posts on Internet Safety for tips on training parents.

Article courtsey of Wall Street Journal 8.22.08

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