‘Pokémon Go’ and the Persistent Myth of Stranger Danger - Pacific Standard

‘Pokémon Go’ and the Persistent Myth of Stranger Danger

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Pokémon Go is not a threat to children, and neither are the humans they’ll meet outside.

By Malcolm Harris

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(Photo: Bob Walker/Flickr)

After we thought Uber had killed it, stranger danger is back again, and in an unlikely form. Pokémon Go is well on its way to being the most successful augmented-reality application, especially among kids, but adults like it too — because it is obviously awesome. Yet some parents have blanched at the idea of theirs kids wandering the streets hunting for an Oddish, often alongside childless grown-ups hunting for the same creature. It’s easy to imagine defenseless youngsters, their heads in the Poké-cloud, falling victim to IRL predators.

Before the game was even out a week, we were already asking “Can ‘Pokémon Go’ Be Exploited by Child Predators?” and writing tutorials on “Keeping Kids Safe While Playing ‘Pokémon Go.’” A Missouri police department has issued a press release warning about robbers targeting unaware Pokémon players. And Twitter is full of jokes about pedophiles who use the app to kidnap kids, or else about Poké-men who worry they’ll look like pedophiles for walking around parks alone. Based on the public reaction, you might think the default relationship between strangers and children is kidnapper/kidnappee.

For as long as we’ve had kids on the Internet, we’ve worried about adults with bad intentions luring them into an in-person meeting. If anyone can name a television crime procedural from the past 20 years that doesn’t feature the plotline, I’ll give them $10. “Parents and teachers today worry a lot about digital safety, in particular — and far more than young people do themselves,” write John Palfrey and Urs Gasser in the new, updated version of their book Born Digital: How Children Grow Up in a Digital Age. The book’s implied audience is adults who want a good explanation of kids from other adults, and safety is clearly a big concern, whether it’s reasonable or not. Citing a 2006 anecdote of an assault victim who’d been groomed on Myspace, the authors write: “Despite the absence of data to show that young people are at a greater risk in an Internet era, there is reason enough for young people to be very cautious about how much information they share.”

Combine scaremongering news reports and the fact that there’s no story when nothing bad happens, and we’re set up to be misled. It’s important to remember that more teens are having actual sexual intercourse than are sexting.

This expert perspective — both authors were at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society until Palfrey became head of school at Phillips Andover Academy — is the usual one when it comes to kids online. Somewhere between scholarship and a parenting manual, Born Digital manages somehow to be neither. “From an adult perspective,” Palfrey and Gasser write, “young people often divulge too much information about themselves online.” But despite this awareness of the limits of their perspective, the authors still aren’t able to think beyond their own point of view. As a result, they don’t display a very good understanding of youth risk-taking.

Take sexting, for example. The authors think it’s important to “develop approaches that include young people as problem-solvers” when it comes to sexting, but they also think they have the answer: “Sharing naked pictures of oneself, even on a service like Snapchat, which is supposedly ‘temporary,’ is not worth the risk of suffering public embarrassment, possibly having to register as a sex offender, and even potentially going to jail.” Palfrey and Gasser thinks it’s important to educate young people about Internet safety so that they make the right choices, like not meeting strangers or sending nudes.

I called up Jeffrey Temple, director of behavioral health and research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Texas Medical Branch (and a foremost authority on teenage sexting behavior), to check the data. Temple has authored or co-authored five studies on the actual practices of young sexters, and what he’s found doesn’t line up with the news. “Nothing ‘bad’ happens to the vast majority of those who sext,” he tells me. “There aren’t any legal complications, there aren’t any psycho-social consequences, anything like that.” There are risks of course, but a fully informed teen might reasonably decide to sext anyway. “The strongest correlate undoubtedly for teen sexting is a consensual sexual relationship,” Temple says. It’s important to remember, he tells me, that more teens are having actual sexual intercourse than are sexting.

Palfrey and Gasser write that sexting stories “rarely end well,” but the stories we hear are hardly representative of actual youth experiences. If two teens trade sexy pics and don’t share them with anyone else, we don’t hear about it. If a group of girls plan a mall meet-up with a grown Internet stranger just to gawk at him from the food court, their parents probably won’t find out, never mind the local cable affiliates. Combine scaremongering news reports and the fact that there’s no story when nothing bad happens, and we’re set up to be misled. If you look at the data, young people have a better sense of the risks they’re taking than commentators who base their thinking on the evening news.

When Palfrey and Gasser write about the absence of data to support the idea that Internet-era kids are at greater risk, they’re being a little disingenuous. They make it sound as though they looked everywhere and simply couldn’t find the statistics, when the truth is that all available data sets indicate that young Americans are increasingly safe from accidental and intentional victimization alike. The people who are most likely to violate children are known to them: Acquaintances, peers, and, yes, parents. Strangers only commit 1 to 10 percent of child abuse. Almost no one wants to harm children, and the ones who do tend to target kids close to them.

From a parental or custodial perspective, Palfrey and Gasser write, it’s important that kids learn to manage risks — but the authors don’t ever acknowledge any apparent upside to particular instances of risky behavior: They aren’t so much interested in why a kid might decide to send a nude or chat with strangers or go hunting for a Flareon in an abandoned lot at three in the morning, as in how to convince them not to. Even looking at his own data, Temple stresses to me that, as the father of a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old, he doesn’t want to give the impression that underage sexting is “OK.” But, I ask him, is it fair to say that most teens who sext are OK? “Yes, most kids who sext are OK.”

All available data sets indicate that young Americans are increasingly safe from accidental and intentional victimization alike.

It’s fine for parents and adult authorities to have a risk-averse perspective when it comes to youth behavior — nobody really wants too-cool parents with boundary issues. But adults also shouldn’t confuse paranoia with fact, which is easy to do when there aren’t many teen pundits around to explain what’s going on from their perspective. Sexual exploration is a valid and important part of healthy development. Going outside and talking to strangers is a valid and important part of healthy development. Kids assert their own judgment, they do it online and in real life at the same time, and they are, by and large, pretty good at it.

It’s OK, too, that adults aren’t the best at assessing risky youth behavior, especially on the Internet — kids are the ones who have to make those judgments for themselves. It only becomes a problem when adults want it both ways: when they want kids to learn decision-making, but also to automatically avoid unnecessary risks. But learning to navigate unnecessary risks is, well, necessary.

I started thinking about Pokémon and safety after I saw one of many viral tweets about interacting with kids who were playing the game. Lisa McKinley tweeted, “A little boy in my neighborhood just knocked on our door and said ‘sorry to bother you, but there’s a Pokémon in your house and I need it.’” She — “of course!” — let him in. This stuck with me because the skills a kid needs to ask their neighbor for Pokémon are not so different from the skills a boy named JaJuan needed to stay safe when his mother Shetamia Taylor was hit in the crossfire at the Dallas Black Lives Matter march. Separated from his mom, JaJuan found Angie Wisner, a stranger. Wisner told NBC that JaJuan bumped into her and asked “Ma’am can I come with you because I lost my mama?” Wisner said the same thing as McKinley, the same thing most adult strangers say when kids ask for their help: “Of course.”

In a parental nightmare scenario, Taylor was able to keep her son safe. JaJuan was prepared to handle an emergency on his own, even if that just meant finding a trustworthy stranger and asking for help. There are consequences to never taking unnecessary risks, and it’s dangerous not to let children talk to strangers, even if a parent’s risk-averse impulse might be to say, “Stop bothering that man, he hasn’t seen any Jigglypuffs!” Maybe the kid’s right. Maybe the stranger can help.

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