Alarmist Truro Police Service needs to be realistic about dangers of Facebook and teeangers

Police in Truro, Nova Scotia, are the latest organization to raise the alarm over teenagers’ privacy savvy online.

The Truro Police Service hired four university summer students to pose as students new to the Truro area, complete with phony Facebook accounts. The students then added 296 actual teenagers, aged 12­–17, to these phony accounts as friends — of the 296 added, only two refused the friend requests.

CBC has the story:

One of the [university students] said he was offered personal information without even asking.

“We had one person and she revealed that her father was RCMP. That could be a little bit dangerous because say I was someone who didn’t like police,” said the summer student, who cannot be identified.

Police said 35 students invited their new “friends” to visit them at home.

Officers are planning to visit schools in the Truro area to talk about the dangers of sharing too much information on the Internet.

Const. Todd Taylor said pedophiles take advantage of such easy access to information.

“They use these sites as a sort of catalogue,” he said.

While it’s certainly understandable that parents and authorities want to educate young people about the Internet and the dangers that come with giving information out online, I think the Truro Police Service is overreacting here. To suggest to parents that their children are in immediate danger from strangers because they have a few photos on Facebook is way overboard; according to an Idaho study, only 1.33 per cent of child sexual abuse victims were victimized by strangers, and the rest were victimized by family members or acquaintances.

And when teenagers hear these over-the-top reports from authorities they come off as laughable. Heck, the Truro police are particularly concerned that they found pictures of girls in bathing suits — oh, the indecency! And when kids start tuning out these reports they are less likely to take seriously the actual dangers of posting too much information online, and there are certainly dangers of posting too much information. But unless kids are taking these warnings from authorities seriously, they’ll never become aware of those real dangers. The Truro police are becoming “the cops who cried wolf.”

I’m certainly not trying to make light of the consequences or dangers of sex offences against children, but alarmist reports like this don’t help the situation. Parents shouldn’t be worried about Facebook to the point where they are forbidding their teenaged children from visiting the website (an impossible task in itself considering how much access to the Internet teenagers have, both inside and outside of the home). If anything, they should be aware of realistic risks of giving out information online so that they can teach their children proper online safety. That’s how to protect kids online.