by Anne Collier

One of the milestones of Internet safety was the distinction between risk and harm made by the pan-European researchers of EU Kids Online back in 2011. “Risk must be distinguished from harm,” they wrote in a report based on surveys of more than 25,000 9-to-16-year-olds in 25 countries. “As with riding a bike or crossing the road, everyday activities online carry a risk of harm, but this harm is far from inevitable – indeed, it is fairly rare.”

‘Online risk’ a different calculation

Now psychologist and lead EU Kids Online researcher Sonia Livingstone takes us a step further, adding another important distinction – the one between the way we determine offline risk and the way we have come to calculate online risk. In a just-published essay about risk, harm and vulnerability online, she shows where the often-used crossing-the-street analogy breaks down. It fails to factor in this other distinction, which we all (from parents to policymakers) need to understand before reacting to scary headlines about cyberbullies or predators. Online risk, where experts calculate “the probability of an encounter that might (or might not) result in harm,” as Livingstone puts it, is different from “real world” risk like crossing a street, where experts can calculate the probability of actual harm (e.g., getting hit by a car). So what is reported about online or phone-based risk “is not the actual risk … but the risk of the risk” (emphasis hers).

“On the internet, we do not know how many children are hurt or how severe are the consequences; there are no accident figures,” Livingstone writes. So what should be in the back of our minds whenever we see reports about “online risk” is that, if data’s being presenting, it’s showing “the probability of something [just something, not necessarily something harmful] happening, but whether it does [actually result in harm] and for how many it does, remains unknown.”

Take ‘sexting,’ for example

As soon as there was research on it at the end of the last decade, Livingstone writes, “‘sexting’ quickly became the latest risk, with policy makers, law enforcement and educators springing into action. But some pressing questions arise. How can we measure the prevalence of ‘sexting’ (how is it defined, can we ask young people ethically, will they report it truthfully?)? Does it matter, and is it harmful? If it is …who is vulnerable?… Is this harm new?… If we don’t ask these questions, public perceptions may conclude that all children are ‘at risk,’ thereby fuelling the media-amplified moral panics that result in anxious calls to restrict children’s internet access, increase surveillance or legislate against online freedoms.”

Other highlights from this important essay:

  • Our chronic anxiety. “Shaped by the media’s tendency to amplify risks, framing them as threatening the innocence of children and undermining the hope of an idealised, risk-free childhood, for many parents risk anxiety has become ‘a constant and pervasive feature of everyday consciousness’ (Jackson and Scott, 1999: 88).”
  • The harmful impact of fear: The internet is not, in any simple terms, making matters worse. But the public’s fear of the internet does seem to be restricting children’s online opportunities and, therefore, their life chances in the long term.”
  • The need for risk-taking: “A risk-averse society will, paradoxically, exacerbate rather than reduce the very vulnerabilities it seeks to protect by undermining the development of resilience. And for teenagers, risk-taking is also important both developmentally and culturally.”
  • “Soul-searching about childhood.” “The debates over internet-related harm … do not so much concern the internet as societal conceptions of childhood – particularly in relation to the place of sexuality and violence in childhood. The recognition that we as a society have only recently created – and are further re-designing – the internet, is stimulating some soul-searching about the childhood we have – and still could – create for our children.”
  • Harm not a given. “The identification of online risk does not imply that harm will follow, nor that all users will be equally affected” – very much like a key finding of the US’s Internet Safety Technical Task Force at Harvard’s Berkman Center, based on a review of this country’s youth-online-risk research through 2008 – that not all youth are equally at risk.
  • Maybe ask the kids? “For the most part, over a decade of surveys have asked children whether they saw something inappropriate but have generally not asked exactly what they saw, and few have asked (if it can be asked) whether this exposure harmed them…. But this is still to get a closer picture of what was happening on the road rather than what happened to the child.” EU Kids Online did actually ask kids if they felt they’d been harmed upon experiencing disturbing content or behavior – see this.
  • How much is the Net the problem, anyway? “Rather than building in an assumption that the internet is to blame (by asking what the internet is doing to childhood) or even grounding our inquiry in research on the internet, since this is relatively new, I suggest that we begin by learning from the long-established tradition of research and policy on the nature of risk, harm and vulnerability offline, including the psychological and sociological analysis of risk in children’s everyday lives.”
  • What’s important, here: “The importance of keeping the main purpose in mind – namely, to facilitate children’s online opportunities – is crucial.”

Awareness of these distinctions – the difference between risk and harm online and the fact that online risk is a very different calculation, if it can even be called that – will help us ask productive questions that lead to real solutions, such as how we can help our children develop the resilience that lowers the risk of harm online as well as offline (see this about internal Internet safety “tools”).

Related links: Other major milestones


Sidebar: ‘Hypothesized,’ not ‘demonstrated’ risk

Since the beginning of the public discussion about children’s Internet safety nearly 20 years ago, the kind of risk we’ve been talking about most of the time is “hypothesized risk.” That’s the term used by David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, when he offered up another important distinction in an online discussion about Livingstone’s essay:

“It is the distinction between ‘demonstrated’ risk and ‘hypothesized’ risk,” he wrote. “Smoking is a demonstrated risk; there is evidence that it causes a variety of harms. Going to meet someone who you only know from online – that is, at best, a hypothesized risk” – and he’s not even sure something should be called a hypothesized risk “just because a large group of people have anxieties about it,” he wrote.

So, Dr. Finkelhor continues, “what has to be established before something can be called a ‘demonstrated’ risk? Surely it must be something more than the fact that ‘something bad could possibly happen in conjunction with that behavior.’ If we treat going to meet an online contact as a risk because 1 in 300 kids had a bad experience, then going to meet your mother is certainly a risky behavior, too. I would offer that a demonstrated risk requires a pretty high threshold: 1) harm rates that are 2 or more times higher than those of behaviors ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’ (a concept used in toxicity testing), like walking down the street or driving in a car; 2) evidence that the behavior or context is causally related to the harm, not just associated with the harm” and 3) “evidence that the benefits do not outweigh the risks. For example, going to school probably increases your chances of being bullied, but it is known to have compensations, so we do not call it risky behavior.