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« A funny librarian - really! | Main | Due diligence »

Fear mongering

Cyber-safety expert, Nancy Willard posted this on LM_Net recently and has given me permission to post it on the Blue Skunk as well. Money in fear. Tell me it isn't so...

I just got back from a trip to the east coast. I presented a full day workshop on cyberbullying in Rochester NY (275+ folks) and then a briefing that was supposed to be for congressional staff in DC, but was attended by the DC policy wonks, not staff. Then two presentations at a conference in Maryland.

EVERY place I went there was evidence of incredible Internet fear mongering!

A lady in Rochester said a FBI agent presented on Internet safety in Buffalo and said social networking sites are so horrible no teen should be using these sites.

At the briefing, the Representative, Rep Bean, who has a pretty good bill pending, said that predators are tracking down teens from the personal information they are posting online and sneaking into their room at night. NO evidence this is occurring! Teens are going to meet with these guys – and need to address this situation. But we have to do so based on the facts. I have been involved in this field for over 12 years and I have never seen one news report of an Internet predator who has tracked down and abducted a teen. I will not say “never will happen” but there is no current evidence
that this is occurring. And the news WOULD report this if it were.

Maryland State Police told the audience folks that 1 in 7 young people are sexually solicited online and (horrors) they are not reporting this to adults! This is based on 2005 data. The study did not even ask about social networking sites. Most of the inappropriate contacts were in chat rooms, which are far more dangerous than social networking sites. 43% of the solicitations came from other teens and 30% came from folks who self-identified as 18 to 25, so you know damned well that this also included lots of teens. Only 9% from folks identified as adults over 25. Of concern! But what were the teens doing in these places in the first place. 16% of the sexual solicitations came from females and it appears that most of them were under 18. So more female teens soliciting sex online than dirty old men. Teens responded to the situations by leaving the site, blocking the person, telling the person to stop, or ignoring the person. Some are telling friends. Most are not telling adults. Why did they not tell adults? Because “it was not serious enough!” They had it under control.

The IKeepSafe who are now partnering with DARE – the “just say no” program that has been proven time and time again to be totally ineffective! - and have their cute little Faux Paws cat telling kids not to talk with or go to meet with online strangers. Well for one, these materials are aimed at elementary students and there is no evidence predators are targeting them. Second, if we have 8 year olds hopping a bus to meet an online stranger at the mall, there are some pretty significant family problems to begin with. But we do have 8 year olds waddling around Club Penguin in their little penguin avatars talking with online strangers. And they are perfectly SAFE! Stranger danger messages ARE NOT EFFECTIVE! We know this. We have to help ALL young people learn to recognize the signs of a dangerous stranger.

I presented on cyberbullying in both locations. Cyberbullying is causing more kids far more harm than sexual predation. Some kids are being emotionally devastated, can’t go to school, some are even committing suicide. But the last thing you are ever going to hear me say is “Social networking is bad. Young people are being cyberbullied on social networking sites and through instant messaging. Keep them off these technologies."

newbook.jpgWhat is the other major reason teens are not telling adults??? Because adults are running about screaming “the sky is falling - social networking is evil” and teens, most of whom are making pretty good choices online, think we are all nuts. But the even bigger problem is that sometimes they really do get into difficult situations and they really do need to share that something bad is happening online. And the fear mongering is getting in the way of this. They pretty much know that adults are being primed to overreact and will. They know adults do not understand and fear this environment - and they are pretty sure the adults will not know what to do or will make matters worse. Or that adults will restrict their access, like the FBI advises. Which for teens is akin to excommunication. So we are leaving them to deal with difficult situations on their own.

And do not get me started on the state AG’s plan to fix all of these problems by requiring sites to do age verification. AGH!!!

Be prepared. I am going to have to become more politically vocal on these issues. The fear mongering is undermining the kinds of relationships we need with kids to help them stay safe and learn to make safe and responsible choices. The biggest thing we have to fear about the Internet right now is the fear mongering itself. (roughly quoting someone ;-))

Oh, part of this is also financial. They all want money - federal $$ - to support their fear mongering programs.
Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D.
Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use

Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social
Aggression, Threats, and Distress (Research Press)

Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the
Internet Safely and Responsibly (Jossey-Bass)

Thanks, Nancy. Good stuff and keep up the good work. Watch for Nancy new guide to Cyberbulling for parents coming to her website soon. She sent me an advanced copy and it is very good.

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Reader Comments (7)

Will you have Nancy read "Made to Stick"?

Then we'll come back and have a "sticky" conversation about the message that needs to counter the fear mongering.

I reviewed CIPA yesterday through the lens of the tools I need these days for basic functionality...many of which are blocked. While I doubt that poor little me has the power to run something up to the Supreme Court and overturn that sort of decision, I am good at snarky commentary on an issue I see keeping teachers down on a daily basis.

That message, however, needs to be sticky. Cynical, pithy commentary on one end..."I'm going to write a book and get political" on the other hand. Neither will eat this elephant.

We have the network. We need the sticky message. (I'm not sure what that is yet.)

"Does anybody know a school network admin or librarian that has been thrown in jail because of patrons accessing child pornography?" (It's a question and a statement.)

"CIPA is specific to *child* pornography. Geriatric porn, therefore, does not fall under the category of things schools are required to block unless it's considered 'obscene' or 'harmful to minors'. Define 'obscene' and 'harmful'."

"Give examples digital content that the FCC prohibits in schools."

"A 17 year old student walks to her school library circulation desk and requests unfiltered access to the Internet in order to do research on a breast cancer research paper. She is a) not a minor and b) doing 'bona fide' research. If the LMC person on duty cannot provide timely, unfiltered access, what legal recourse does this (adult) student have."

"Quick poll. You are trying to do "bona fide" research on a school computer and access to content is blocked. How long will it take you to reach that website? A) I have an overide password provided to me to simply bypass the filter. B) I could probably get access within 1 day after contacting technical support C) Somewhere in the timeframe of 1 week D) Somewhere in the timeframe of 1 month E) I do not know what to do if I want a site unblocked."

I know Nancy has some elements of "sticky" in her arguments based off stuff Danah Boyd has put out there, but Nancy and Danah are simply experts in our close circles. When need a more clever, sticky message.

October 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Pederson

Hi John,

I agree and will pass your message along to Nancy.

The problem with complex issues is that they ARE complex and tend not to reduce themselves to "sticky" sound bites. Maybe we could have a contest.

Thanks for writing,


October 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

A contest. I like it. I'm happy to co-sponsor with you, Doug. Shall we do this?

October 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterScott McLeod

Last year our school had a couple of "experts" come in and address our parents about Internet safety. The topic was largely to focus on cyberbullying. Since I was a computer teacher, I felt I needed to attend. After about 45 minutes of listening to these people terrify the parents and having the conversation go to how can we block our kids from these sites, I blew. I stood up and told them all that blocking kids was not the answer. I told them there was some great stuff on MySpace and the networking skills the kids were learning would be a huge asset to them in the workforce. I told parents that each of them should have social networking accounts at their kids sites and they should be monitoring what their children were putting out there. I told them they should be checking out their kids online friends just like they would the face to face friends. Needless to say, once I got on my little soapbox, I really went on a roll.

I received a phone call the next day from a reporter at the paper. (I guess I should have looked around and seen who was in the audience before I spouted off!) They did a very nice piece. This year my principal and I have decided to try an experiment. Starting on November 12th, we are going to have a parent night and parents are going to come and talk to me about some of these sites. I do not claim to be an expert in any way (which reminds me, I better start that learning curve.) Then I am going to show parents MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo. Bebo is where most of our middle school kids are at. I am going to encourage them to set up accounts and to have them insist that their children make them "friends." My hope is that parents will help their kids make moral decisions about some of the trash they post. If this works, we are going to do this monthly. I am fortunate that the district is willing to open the firewall for the evening so that we will have access.

What do you think? Is this a crazy idea? Will parents care enough to look? Can I convince them that we don't want to block, simply educate the kids on what is and isn't appropriate? Is it too late to find someone who is really an expert and will do it for free?

October 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSherry

Hi Sherry,

This a great post. Yes, I think parents will care enough to come look. And YOU are enough of an expert (or can be quickly).

I'd recommend reading materials at Larry Magid and Anne Collier's site:

Especially their August 1, 2007 commentary "Social Networking Dangers in Perspective."

I think you might get more realism and support from parents than you might think. I had a "mom" approach me after a talk about the real vs imaginary dangers of social networking and thanks me, since she credits Facebook/MySpace for helping her son overcome depression. The support he received from friends on these sites was very helpful to him.

Good luck and let me know how the evening turns out!

All the very best,


October 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Thank you, Doug - and Nancy - for this timely post. "Fear mongering" is exactly the term I would use to describe the US Attorney's Project Safe Childhood video, which you can view or download at Since I teach an Internet Safety workshop for my district, my boss gave me a copy to review. He attended an evening workshop the US Attorney's Office did last month at one of our high schools during which this video was shown. Fortunately, it was poorly attended or I think many students would have lost their parent permission to use the Internet while at school.

In a nutshell, the video is about Internet predators and has little to do with how to teach our students to use the Internet safely, effectively, and ethically.

I think a much better resource is the What You Need to Know video from, which introduces parents to the benefits and realities of Web 2.0.

Thanks for starting the conversation!

October 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterGail Desler

I recently read an article on the subject of fear that you may want to look at. I noticed that this blog has information about fear. You may want to check out this website. It has a great article on fear as well as worldviews. This article covers overcoming fear. Check it out at

October 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMike Peterson

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