Debunking Hysteria About Online ‘Predators’

Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies is the “Final Report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force to the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking of State Attorneys General of the United States.”

To make a very, very, very long story short, what the panel found is exactly what I would have expected: that popular hysteria over online 'predators' is wildly overblown. Plus, age verification technology is of little value — to the extent there is a real problem online, it is that kids are mean to each other (think “recess”).

From the executive summary:

… the risks minors face online are complex and multifaceted and are in most cases not significantly different than those they face offline, and that as they get older, minors themselves contribute to some of the problems. In broad terms, the research to date shows:

  • Sexual predation on minors by adults, both online and offline, remains a concern. Sexual predation in all its forms, including when it involves statutory rape, is an abhorrent crime. Much of the research based on law-enforcement cases involving Internet-related child exploitation predated the rise of social networks. This research found that cases typically involved post-pubescent youth who were aware that they were meeting an adult male for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity. The Task Force notes that more research specifically needs to be done concerning the activities of sex offenders in social network sites and other online environments, and encourages law enforcement to work with researchers to make more data available for this purpose. Youth report sexual solicitation of minors by minors more frequently, but these incidents, too, are understudied, underreported to law enforcement, and not part of most conversations about online safety.
  • Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline.
  • The Internet increases the availability of harmful, problematic and illegal content, but does not always increase minors’ exposure. Unwanted exposure to pornography does occur online, but those most likely to be exposed are those seeking it out, such as older male minors. Most research focuses on adult pornography and violent content, but there are also concerns about other content, including child pornography and the violent, pornographic, and other problematic content that youth themselves generate.
  • The risk profile for the use of different genres of social media depends on the type of risk, common uses by minors, and the psychosocial makeup of minors who use them. Social network sites are not the most common space for solicitation and unwanted exposure to problematic content, but are frequently used in peer-to-peer harassment, most likely because they are broadly adopted by minors and are used primarily to reinforce pre-existing social relations.
  • Minors are not equally at risk online. Those who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives. The psychosocial makeup of and family dynamics surrounding particular minors are better predictors of risk than the use of specific media or technologies.
  • Although much is known about these issues, many areas still require further research. For example, too little is known about the interplay among risks and the role that minors themselves play in contributing to unsafe environments.

There are also some sensible, cautious, suggestions about what can be done — but don't expect a magic bullet.

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3 Responses to Debunking Hysteria About Online ‘Predators’

  1. dodgypins says:

    I would have more confidence in the outcome of this research if it were not paid for by the people who stand to benefit from soothing our anxieties about youth safety online.. e.g. Facbook, Linden Corp, Yahoo, Microsoft etc.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    I’ve stopped noticing hysteria about online predators, I guess. Has it risen recently?

  3. michael says:

    AFAIK, not especially. It’s been insanely high for several years.

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