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Internet safer for kids than we’ve been led to believe

A year ago, 49 state attorneys general — by the way, shouldn’t the abbreviation of that be AsG, not AGs? — who were worried about child safety on social networking sites, commissioned a study of the problem. The Internet Safety Technology Task Force was established and chartered with gathering data about child predation and children’s access to inappropriate material. John Palfrey (a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center), was made the chair, and Dena Sacco (a former assistant US attorney) and danah boyd (an Internet sociologist) — both also Fellows at the Center — were co-directors. Now the task force has issued its 280 page report.

After looking at every piece of research they could find (compiling an 85-page list of sources), the study has come to nuanced conclusions that I’m about to un-nuance. First, the fears that motivated the report are overblown. There is child predation on the Net, and everyone ought to be concerned about that. But there isn’t as much as we thought, and our kids usually handle the occasional creepy solicitation better than we thought. Second, although there is obviously easy access to all sorts of disturbing material on the Net, it’s not as as in the faces of our kids as we thought. Third, child-to-child bullying is a bigger problem than the sponsors of the report initially thought. Finally, there’s a long list of things we need to do to address these problems — because, to repeat, the fact that there’s less raping of children going on than sensationalists have suggested doesn’t mean that it’s not still an issue — but there are no single technological fixes. In particular, the expected fixes of age and ID verification are not a universal panacea and, because of their risks and downsides, should not be mandated for all social networking sites.

This is an important report because it is relentlessly based on data-driven research. The task force believes it has considered every piece of peer-reviewed research published and more. Its conclusions come in response to all the known data.

I interviewed John Palfrey and Dena Sacco about the report on Monday, for a Radio Berkman that will be posted today at Media Berkman.[Later that morning: Here it is.] If I say that I think it came out well, you’ll understand that that’s because of John and Dena’s eloquence.

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