Is there such a thing as being too safe on the Internet? One University of Illinois education researcher believes there is, at least when teenagers are concerned.

Media reports warn of online predators, hate groups and other “digital dangers” lurking in online social spaces, and those dangers are not to be taken lightly, says Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at Illinois.

“But we may do adolescents a disservice when we curtail their participation in these spaces, because the educational and psychosocial benefits of this type of communication can far outweigh the potential dangers,” Tynes wrote in an essay titled “Internet Safety Gone Wild?” appearing in this month’s issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research.

In online discussions, teenagers have the opportunity to develop critical thinking and argumentation skills, Tynes said. They can find support from online peer groups, explore questions of identity, get help with homework, and ask questions about sensitive issues they might be afraid to ask face to face, she said. They can develop their skills in understanding issues from the perspective of others.

In many circumstances, the same anonymity that parents and educators often find so threatening about certain online sites and spaces is actually a benefit, she said.

In particular that can be true with issues of race and ethnicity, which Tynes has found in her research to be “very much a common theme” in adolescents’ online discussions. In one of her studies, focused on open-topic chat rooms, she found that race was mentioned in 38 of 39 discussions.

Tynes knows from her research and that of others that hate groups are online and proliferating. Added to that is the racial or ethnic insensitivity to be found routinely in many online conversations, Tynes said.

“That being said, I also think that there are myriad positive outcomes that are related to interracial interaction online,” she said.

Some teenagers who believe racism no longer exists may readily find it in online discussions, Tynes said. Some may go online and spread false information or make insensitive remarks, but find themselves challenged, she said. Others may find the online environment a place to ask serious questions about race or ethnicity they would be afraid to ask in person, for fear of offending or causing a conflict, Tynes said.

In all of these cases, there is an opportunity to learn or gain a new perspective, she said. “It’s sort of like having training wheels for engaging in interracial discussions (offline),” Tynes said.

Given the increasing segregation of U.S. schools along racial lines, Tynes thinks schools may even want to encourage online discussion as a substitute for what is missing in hallways and classrooms. “I think the Internet would be a perfect place to engage the racial issues that may not come up because of this re-segregation,” she said.

Instead of trying to close down or closely monitor teenagers’ access to social networking, chat rooms and discussion boards online, Tynes suggested in her “Safety Gone Wild?” essay that “the first line of defense should be teens themselves. Increasingly, tech-savvy adolescents are aware of the risks in online socializing and are developing their own strategies for staying safe in cyberspace.”

To build on that awareness and sophistication, she suggested that parents and educators maintain an open and honest dialogue with teens about the dangers and potential benefits of the Internet. They can also actively encourage and assist teens to learn about and implement privacy settings in social networking spaces such as MySpace and Facebook.

Tynes also suggested that adults can help teens “develop an exit strategy” for use, when necessary, in certain online spaces. “Teens should know how to warn or block persons who make them feel threatened and how to extract themselves from uncomfortable situations,” she wrote.

Rather than seeing online social environments so often as a threat, Tynes suggested that parents and educators see them as a place “allowing young people to practice interaction with others in the safety of their homes,” and as a training ground for teens preparing to enter the adult social world.