My friend Larry Magid, one of America's leading Internet safety experts, has an outstanding column over at the Yahoo Kids "Connected Parent" site entitled "Is the Internet as Dangerous as Drunk Driving?" In it, he discusses the surprising results of a recent survey of 1,000 moms of teenagers commissioned by McAfee and conducted by Harris Interactive which found that "about two-thirds of mothers of teens in the United States are just as, or more, concerned about their teenagers' online safety, such as from threatening emails or solicitation by online sexual predators, as they are about drunk driving (62 per cent) and experimenting with drugs (65 per cent)."
Like Larry, I was a bit shocked that so many mothers would equate online safety with the dangers of drunk driving. After all, as Larry proves, the relative risks aren't even close:
While moms have good reason to be concerned about how their teens use the Internet, online dangers pale compared to the risks of drunk driving. In 2007, 6,552 people were killed in auto accidents involving young drivers (16-20), according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). In 2006, nearly a fifth (18%) of the 7,643 15- to 20-year-old drivers involved in fatal traffic crashes had a blood had a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher.
Perception of Internet danger has been heightened thanks to the TV show "To Catch a Predator" and inaccurate reports such as "one in five children have been sexually solicited by a predator." That statistic is a misquote from a 2000 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center. The data (which, based on a 2005 follow-up study was revised to one in seven) is based on a survey that asked teens if they had in the last year received an unwanted sexual solicitation.
But many (possibly most) of those solicitations were from other teens, not from adult predators. What's more most recipients didn't view them as serious or threatening, "almost all youth handled the solicitations easily and effectively" and "extremely few youth (two out of 1500 interviewed) were actually sexually victimized by someone they met online," reported the authors of the study. Other studies have shown that "the stereotype of the Internet child molester who uses trickery and violence to assault children is largely inaccurate" (Wolak, Finkelhor & Mitchell, 2004). In a survey of law enforcement investigators of Internet sex crimes, it was reported that only 5% of offenders pretended to be teens when trying to meet potential victims online.
Those of us who work on Internet policy issues need to do a better job of helping the press and public put online safety risks in proper perspective. Misguided Internet legislation is often premised upon irrational or conjectural fears. Unfortunately, a lot of average moms have been swayed by misperceptions, many of which have been driven by the press or public interest groups that favor more regulation of the Net.