Online predators! Cyberbullying! Privacy! There are a lot of fears about how young people are growing up online. And, since these are young people we’re talking about, those fears often turn into full-blown panics (with help from the occasional, sensational news report). Good decisions are rarely made in a panic, however. To help kids navigate the world of instant communication in which they live, we need to take a step back and examine the facts and our fears.1

Myth #1: Young People Don’t Care About Privacy
There’s a common perception that young people are posting their entire lives to Facebook and Twitter. While extreme cases have emerged in the press, most youth are sensitive to the issue of online privacy and have developed nuanced strategies to balance concerns about privacy with the ability to use online communications to strengthen relationships and share information.

So, while adults might simply avoid putting sensitive material online at all, young people feel more inclined to use software, passwords and user settings on social networks like Facebook to limit who can see what. They engineer levels of privacy and grant access to their best friends while excluding prying eyes (e.g. parents and teachers). Studies also show that the more young people are aware of their online privacy options (in addition to the privacy policies of websites like Google, Facebook and Twitter) the more care they exercise when deciding what and how to publish on the Net. That finding provides a nice segue into our next myth…

Myth #2: All Online Youths Are Internet Wizards
Much has been written about the upcoming generation of digital natives: kids and teens who have known the Internet their entire lives. However, the “digital divide” created by socioeconomic circumstances affects online skills. Youth who depend on library computers where they are not able to install or configure their own software are less likely to be aware of privacy options or the perils of unreliable information sources than peers who access the Internet on their own machines. All young people would benefit from media and computer literacy classes, but not all get them.

Myth #3: Anonymous Chatting Exposes Kids To Adult Predators
While young Net users report they have chatted with people they’ve never met, most online interactions involve relationships created offline. And most children do not meet someone in person they’ve only met online.

Fearmongers often cite the statistic, from a 2005 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, that 1 in 7 children have received sexual propositions while online. But David Finkelhor, author of that report, notes that many of these propositions don’t come from Internet predators at all.

Indeed, danah boyd of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society says that most sexual solicitations are “the 19-year-old saying to the 17-year old, ‘Hey, baby’” and that  kids who engage in risky behavior online have often “engaged in a lot more risky behavior offline.”

Myth #4: The Internet Creates Anti-Social Youth
Not only are youths using the Net as another way to hang out with their peers, they’re often pursuing shared interests and skills through collaborative projects. The wealth of online tutorials and information makes “geeking out” a way to develop expertise in a particular subject while strengthening social skills for collaboration. This kind of self-directed, interest-driven learning will become increasingly important as the “knowledge worker” economy evolves, especially as more school hours are turned over to standardized testing.

Myth #5: Censoring Student Speech Is Necessary and Justifiable to Prevent Cyberbullying
Kids can act a lot nastier in anonymous spaces afforded by the Internet than they would ever be in person. And their mockery can be far more painful when it’s public and published instead of muttered in the hallway. But anti-bullying laws and campaigns often miss the mark, penalizing protected speech without enhancing safety. In the meantime they do little to teach young people the skills to protect themselves from online harassment.

Myth #6: Filtering and Surveillance Are the Best Ways to Protect Online Youth
Our final myth builds on the lessons learned so far. When the digital youth are portrayed as a careless cybermob it’s reasonable for parents and educators to react with monitoring and restricting online access. But as we’ve seen, young people are discerning about their online lives – to the extent they are aware of their options. Parents hoping to reduce the amount of personal information their children disclose can start by discussing website content, social network policies and reviewing available software and practices for securing data. Empowering informed decisions, not policing kids, is more likely to succeed because it doesn’t create resistance and it builds skills young people need now, and when they grow up.

Young people accept the Internet as interwoven with daily life, not just for work or just for play. Many adults need to see the Net through kids’ eyes to teach them healthy choices online and off.

1. This article is indebted to John Palfrey’s survey of social research on youth Internet use “The Challenge of Developing Effective Public Policy on the Use of Social Media by Youth,” Federal Communications Law Journal

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