Sexual Bullying

Once again, I can turn to the UK for progressive thinking on issues that matter to me — for example, they have been way ahead of the US in terms of developing curricula on cyberbullying and the grooming techniques of online predators. Now, they are starting to acknowledge that bullying using sexual content deserves specific mention. The BBC published an article on “sexual bullying,” which they simply define as “anything from sexualised name-calling to spreading rumours about someone’s sexual behaviour, to criminal offences such as assault and rape.” A UK-based online news site noted that 3500 students were expelled from school for sexual misconduct and that teachers were among the victims. Although this coverage on sexual bullying does not reference the internet specifically, I think it is an important step to separately consider bullying of a sexual nature from other types of harassment.

The BBC article focuses on a very basic survey of 273 11-19 year-olds (this is a PDF of the results in their entirety). While the sample size is too small and age range too large to really make anything of it, its presence makes me optimistic that more attention will be paid to it in the future. And maybe sexual bullying online will also begin to get notice. I have complained about the lack of connection between cyberbullying and sexuality before. Perhaps this connection will be made more often at least across the pond, if not here.

Fear-based Spin

Although I have an earlier blog post about the Internet Safety Technical Task Force report, I came across an article that I must vent over.

To recap, the ISTTF report was published as an official statement of the Task Force regarding their opinions and recommendations regarding online safety for minors, and how to approach this issue going forward. Their main points were (see pages 4 & 5 of the Executive Summary):
1. The use of the internet by adults to abduct minors is very rare. Adult predation cases that incorporated the internet typically involved “post-pubescent youth who were aware that they were meeting an adult male for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity.” Random abduction is essentially unheard of.
2. “Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors
face, both online and offline.” In other words, researchers, policy makers, and other concerned adults should focus on bullying, not predators, when striving to improve online safety.
3. “The Internet increases the availability of harmful, problematic and illegal content, but does
not always increase minors’ exposure.”

So, imagine my dismay when I see an article whose headline reads: “Study Proves American Teens are at Serious Risk.” This article cries: “Abuse, bullying, hatred and pornography crowd the internet; and no where are they more prevalent, or more dangerous, than on sites geared towards teens.” Huh? Did I miss something here?

Unfortunately, I did not. For this is no article, but a press release disguised as news written to promote an online safety service. Too bad the author of the release didn’t see the Task Force recommendation that the Attorneys General NOT “endorse any one technology or set of technologies to protect minors online.” (p. 6).

Hopefully parents and other adults will notice and act accordingly.

Reminding Youth about Public Access to Information

I thought this study, featured in the New York Daily News, was quite clever. The beginning of the research is simple enough: Author Dr. Megan Moreno analyzed 190 public profiles of young persons aged 18-20. Not too surprisingly, she found that all of their pages included three or more references to sex, drinking, drug use or smoking. Ho-hum. Most research stops there and sounds out the alarm.

What happened next was simple, neat, and full of useful implications. After seeing the profiles, “Dr. Meg” sent each of the MySpace subscribers an email which read “You seemed to be quite open about sexual issues or other behaviors such as drinking or smoking. Are you sure that’s a good idea? … You might consider revising your page to better protect your privacy.” And guess what? After three months, 42% of those receiving the message either removed the material or changed their profile setting to “private” so that only their friends could see their information.

Neat, huh? This just shows that with a little nudge, young people can understand how their private information posted in a public forum can and is seen by unwanted parties. And a simple reminder, they will change their behavior.

Internet Safety Technical Task Force Carries a Strong Message

It takes great news like this to awaken me from my holiday slumber. The Internet Safety Technical Task Force is releasing their report which concludes that ““actual threats that youth [online] may face appear to be different than the threats most people imagine.” The New York Times headline reads: Report Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown.

I feel both happy and vindicated. Happy, because this is an accurate assessment of the experiences of youth online. Vindicated because I set up this blog and have been making presentations with this message for several years now.

Larry Magid, who served on the Task Force, summed it up beautifully by saying: “While the task force found that youth risk from predators is a concern, the overwhelming majority of youth are not in danger of being harmed by an adult predator they meet online.”

Instead, according to the Task Force report, the focus of our online safety efforts should lean towards better understanding — and preventing — cyberbullying.