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by Nancy E. Willard
Jossey-Bass, 2007
Review by Christian Perring on Feb 12th 2008

Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens

Nancy Willard surveys the dangers that young people face when using the Internet.  In a book of 324 pages, she crams 35 chapters, as well as two appendices, and an index.  Topics range over topics such as privacy protection, the decision-making abilities of children and adolescents, sexuality online, cyberbullying, self-harm communities, online gaming and plagiarism.  Willard divides the book into 4 main sections: parenting strategies, foundational issues, influences on online decision-making, specific risks and concerns.  There's also a short finishing chapter on the benefits of the Internet. 

Willard's discussion seems thoughtful and informed by current popular beliefs in education.  However, there's no other reason to think that her suggestions are useful, since she reports no testing of them.  For example, she refers many times to her " Parent-Teen Internet Use Agreement," (which can found online at http://www.cskcst.com/pdfs/ParentTeenAgreement.pdf ).  However, she reports no evidence that getting a teen to read and sign such an agreement is actually helpful.  There are four pages of notes with some reference to other sources of information, but the majority of these are to non-scholarly websites, and almost none of them are scientific papers about strategies to protect young people from the dangers of the Internet.  Furthermore, for most of the book, it isn't very clear where Willard is getting her information from.  She doesn't even refer to many actual news items, which is strange, since news organizations find the dangers of the Internet a favorite topic, so there should be plenty of stories available.  Indeed, Willard goes so far as to make up her own anecdotes rather than use real stories.  The book gives very few statistics about the prevalence of Internet-caused problems in young people, and so it is difficult for readers to get a clear sense of what the biggest dangers are. 

The longest chapter of the book, unsurprisingly, concerns the kids and teens getting involved in online sexual activity, which is one of the best documented in the book. Willard claims that "excessive teen involvement in risky sexual behavior online is generally a symptom of deeper problems."  She cites no sources in this claim, and indeed gives no reason to think it is true.  However, Willard does go into some empirical studies, saying that a 2006 study found that one third of young people between the ages of 10 and 17 had been approached sexually on the Internet.  She also gives some reason to think that the rate of sexual solicitation is actually decreasing, and suggests that this may be because young people are getting better at protecting themselves.  Nevertheless, there are many ways in which teenagers and even preteens can be exposed to sexual images, especially in peer-to-peer networks, or unwanted results in web searches.  Furthermore, teens themselves post provocative pictures of themselves online in an effort to be popular, or post pictures they have taken of others at parties, for example.  Willard pays particular attention to sexual predators, how they groom children or teens for sexual contact, and suggests steps that parents can take to protect their children, and warning signs that children have become sexually involved with someone through the Internet. 

The advice provided by Willard sounds plausible enough.  She is especially sensitive to the problem that simply being highly restrictive in one's children's access to the Internet may be counterproductive, causing rebellious behavior, or just leading them to be more resourceful and secretive in finding ways to do what they want to do.  Thus she emphasized the importance of dialog and establishing trust between parent and child.  Nevertheless, one wonders what makes Willard an expert in this area, and how complete her discussion of the subject is.  Her references to the dangers of low-self esteem also raise the possibility that she is repeating orthodoxy from educational thinking rather than actually basing her suggestions on tried and true methods.  In the absence of strong reason to think that Willard's ideas are right, it is not possible to give this book a strong recommendation.  But it might be useful for some parents who are very concerned about the risks their children face in the cyberworld and want to examine all suggestions that have been made. 

Links:

Author website for book

Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use

Nancy Willard's new blog

Nancy Willard's old blog

© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.

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