This week I spoke at Russia's Safer Internet Day Conference and thought I'd share an edited version my remarks.
The Internet has an enormous impact on all aspects of life including commerce, journalism and education and no single group has been more adaptive to technology than our youth. They have not just joined the technology revolution -- they are leading it.
Just last week Facebook announced that it would float shares on the public stock market and is expected to raise between $5 billion and $10 billion to become possibly a $100 billion company. It was founded 8 years ago by Mark Zuckerberg while he was still a teenager. He is now only 27. Soon there will be many new millionaires in my community, bidding up the price of housing. Most of them will be under 30.
Both Google and Yahoo were started by Stanford University students. Apple -- the world's most valuable company -- was started by a young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak when they were in their 20s.
It's hard to know what sparks technological revolutions, but it's no coincidence that they came from a country that values freedom of speech. Silicon Valley -- where much of this innovation is taking place -- is especially strong when it comes to freedom and tolerance.
I spent most of career as a technology journalist but around 1994, I turned my attention to Internet safety by writing the first popular Internet safety educational booklet on behalf of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. There was no research at the time. I guess I can be forgiven for basing my advice on what I thought to be the situation. Now, thanks to a great deal of research, we can base advice on actual risks and a real understanding of how young people use technology and social media. For the past several years I have been a member of the board of directors of NCMEC which works very closely with industry in the United States to assure compliance with the law requiring them to report child sexual abuse issues and other online sexual crimes against children to the National Center which, in turn, sends the worst cases to law enforcement.
Since the mid-90s, there have been three phases of Internet safety. During the 90s and early 21st century we focused almost exclusively on pornography and predators. Later we focused on things kids do to harm themselves and each other. My ConnectSafely.org partner Anne Collier and I created Online Safety 3.0 (OS3.ConnectSafely.org) to engage and empower youth and encourage safety messages based on research, not speculation.
We now know that the vast majority of youth are using the Internet safely. The number of problems relative to the number of users is quite low. It's certainly lower than problems associated with life in the physical world. For example we hear a lot of about cyberbullying but physical bullying in school is actually more common. We hear about predators, but 80 percent of all sex crimes against children involve adults and children who know each other in the real world.
Cases where a child is exploited based on an initial contact via the Internet are rare and almost always involve the child taking an extreme risk. Still, one exploited child is one too many, which is why we must develop programs that target at-risk youth.
Despite what some people say, research from the best scholars in the U.S. and Europe has found that predators very rarely find victims online. They find them the old fashioned way -- in their local communities.
It's popular to quote the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child when we talk about protecting children, but we must not ignore Article 13: "The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice."
It is important not to confuse child pornography or child abuse images with Internet safety. While the distribution of these terrible and illegal images may take place online, the crime always begins offline with an adult who has physical access to a child -- often a child they know, and frequently their own children or children of family members.
And while we talk about protecting children online it is important to know that during the very years that the Internet has grown, from 1992 to 2008, child sexual abuse in United States has decreased by 58 percent, according the Crimes Against Children Research Center.
There are problems and we are all aware of them: children's access to pornography, bullying, adults who would harm children, but we must not let these problems take our attention away from the power and potential of the Internet and we must not exaggerate the problems. The Internet is a reflection of life and simply amplifies issues that we have been dealing for centuries.
Click here for links to the full transcript plus presentations by myself and my ConnectSafely co-director Anne Collier.
(This column also appeared on the San Jose Mercury News website and in the Palo Alto Daily News)
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