This was posted to the NYRA forums on January 15. It’s about time that someone thought about the power of science and did an actual statistical investigation into the risks of online social networking. The result? Social networking sites aren’t nearly as dangerous as some people would like us to think. I was particularly interested in this comment in the article: “Some fall prey, and the results are tragic. That harsh reality defies the statistical academic research underlying the report.” Tragic events do happen, of course. These events are terrible but extremely rare. Almost every beneficial technology ever invented can have tragic consequences in very rare circumstances, from electrical wiring to the airplane. So the report does not, as this commentator seems to imply, ignore the real threat of online solicitations of children. The report presents these events as exactly what they are: statistical rarities that are tragic when they occur but occur in very small numbers when compared to the number of users of sites like Facebook.

I don’t mean to discount the tragedy that social networking has brought to some families. However, child predators are not somehow unique to the Internet, and social networking sites do not allow them unique access to children. The Internet represents a cross-section of society. As this article states, online communities, like real communities, are populated mainly by well-meaning people. Like real communities, they possess the occasional person who will want to do harm to others. Of course, this person could also be a teacher at school, a member of the church or even a member of a child’s family (in fact, the latter is statistically far more likely than any of the other possibilities mentioned.) Tragedies will always occur. However, the way to avoid tragedy is to be careful. Just like nobody would protect their children from predators by keeping them home from school, and just like the benefits of getting on an airplane far outweigh the very unlikely possibility of a crash, it does little benefit to shield children from the Internet.

Often ignored are the very real benefits of the Internet, and even of social networking itself. Spending hours on Facebook may not be the best assistant in getting work done, but such social interactions are important for normal development. Students who aren’t allowed to talk to friends during classes need time to do so after school. When friends live far away, chatting online may be easier and more convenient for parents and children. Social networking sites can also be used to keep up with friends, such as those from camp, who one might be unlikely to see in person again. One can even interact with people of similar interests from around the world, teaching about other cultures and imparting lessons of tolerance and acceptance in a way a lecture could not.

While there are dangers to any technology, social networking sites, like most technologies, provide benefits as well. When simple, common-sense safety procedures are followed, the benefits of these technologies can outweigh the unlikely risks