Report refutes claims of social networking dangers

Only a minority of students have gotten threats from strangers online

A study released this month by the U.S. National School Boards Association debunks the common assumption that MySpace and other social networking sites are breeding grounds for sexual predators seeking to harm students.

The study, which surveyed students between the ages of nine and 17, parents and school district leaders, found that only .08 percent of the more than 1,200 students surveyed had actually met with someone in person that they had encountered online. In addition, 4 percent of students said they have had conversations on a social network that made them uncomfortable, less than 3 percent of students said that unwelcome strangers have tried repeatedly to communicate with them and 2 percent reported that a stranger they met online tried to meet them in person. Parents' responses were nearly identical to student answers to these questions.

"School district leaders seem to believe that negative experiences with social networking are more common than students and parents report," the report said. "Only a small minority of students has had any kind of negative experience with social networking in the last three months."

The report, called "Creating and Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social and Educational - Networking," was funded in part by Microsoft, News Corp. (which owns MySpace) and Verizon. The National School Boards Association is a non-profit association of school boards representing 95,000 local school board members. In stark contrast to what students reported, more than half the districts said that students providing personal information online has been "a significant" problem in their schools.

The students surveyed were heavy users of social networking, with 96 percent of those with online access reporting they had used social networking technologies such as chatting, text messaging, blogging or visiting social networking sites; 81 percent said they had visited a social networking site in the past three months, and 71 percent said they use social networking sites at least weekly. Fifty percent of students said they discussed specific schoolwork topics on the sites.

The report goes on to recommend that school districts reconsider the common practice of restricting student access to social networking tools. Fewer than 29 percent of school district leaders believe that social networking could help students improve their reading or writing, the report goes on to note.

However, districts should find ways to use the educational value of social networking technologies like setting up chat rooms, blogs and wikis for students to access for after school help, according to the report.

"Many schools initially banned or restricted Internet use, only to ease up when the educational value of the Internet became clear," the report said. "The same is likely to be the case with social networking."

Large proportions of district leaders say that a strong emphasis on collaborative and planned activities, strong tools for students to express themselves and an emphasis on bringing different kinds of student together would be required for them to buy into social networking. They also would insist on adult monitoring of student use of the technology, the report noted.

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