As scary as some of the reports covering it may make it look, there's a lot of good news for online youth in the much-anticipated new study from UNH's Crimes Against Children Research Center, "Trends in Arrests of Online Predators." I hope the news coverage doesn't focus solely on the nearly five-fold increase in online predator arrests since the CACRC's last such study in 2000, but even if it does, that finding points to great preventive police work throughout the US (in 2006, 87% of those arrests involved police posing as teens, not real young people, the study found). Those arrests likely prevented crimes against children, and they're sending the message that cops are out there patrolling "the neighborhood."
But there's a lot of other positive news in the report. For example…
* Between the CACRC's last study of Net-related predation arrests and this one, there was only a "modest" increase – 21% – of arrests of offenders soliciting young people, its authors report, "from an estimated 508 arrests in 2000 to an estimated 615 in 2006," at a time when the number of US 12-to-17-year-olds online went from 73% to 93%, or more than 25 million, in 2006, and when their Internet use was getting a lot more social.
* Overall sex offenses against youth declined during this period, and Internet-initiated child sexual exploitation constituted only 1% of overall child sexual exploitation.
* Despite all the hype about registered sex offenders, only a tiny percentage of the arrests surveyed were of registered sex offenders, which indicates that, while blocking them from sites may reduce, it by no means stops sexual solicitation (and we already knew that a significant percentage of the solicitations come from peers).
* Not good news, but a notable finding in the study is that there has been "a significant increase in arrests of young adult offenders, ages 18 to 25," which also challenges the image of "predators" presented in the news media.
What about social networking?
Now let's zoom in on what the authors say about online social networking – not just because it's so important to our kids (and statistically of growing use to us too), but also because of all the hype and news coverage about predators in social network sites since 2005:
* "There was no evidence that online predators were stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on information they posted at social networking sites.
* "The nature of crimes in which online predators used the Internet to meet and victimize youth changed little between 2000 and 2006, despite the advent of social networking sites."
Going even further, USATODAY later cited the view of study lead author David Finkelhor that "ongoing studies show that being on a social networking site doesn't create risk for sexual victimization."
Where the risk is
The key to cutting through all the hype and really protecting kids from online predators is in understanding where the risk really lies. Since social networking hit the public radar screen in late 2005, the misconception has grown that the problem lies in a particular technology or "place" online. Dr. Finkelhor put it this way in an email the day the study was released: "The SNS [social-network sites] issue like the age authentication solution is all about mistaking the problem as one of 'access'," he told me. "It’s not about access. It’s about what kids do when interacting online: behaviors."
As for what those behaviors are, Dr. Finkelhor spelled some of them out in a CBS/CNET interview for Larry Magid, my ConnectSafely.org co-director: talking about sex with strangers in a lot of different places online, especially chatrooms about sex and romance, and getting into sexual relationships with people met online (see also "Profile of a teen online victim" from a talk Finkelhor gave in 2007).
"I think the messages [about online safety] need to warn kids about the very risky things they can do in their adolescent naivete and interest in exploring the world," he told Larry. Finkelhor added a risk-prevention behavior that both the Internet industry and all child safety advocates can help promote: "We also need to encourage other people online, the bystanders, people who know these young people or see these interactions on various sites, to report it, to caution the kids about what they're doing, to intervene, to begin to feel they need to take some action to short-circuit what they're seeing might happen." Watching each other's backs, I'm hearing Finkelhor suggest. One of the country's top experts on online safety is pointing to the need to foster digital citizenship.