Sex offenders in social sites: Consider the facts

The only way we can have solid, progressive parent-child and public discussions about children's online safety is if we can keep the facts in mind when we read the latest news about predators in Facebook and MySpace – facts based on consistent, peer-reviewed academic research about online risk. So here are the key facts to keep in mind:

* Not all children are equally at risk of Net-related sexual exploitation (see "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies" from the US's Internet Safety Technical Task Force, with a summary of all child-online-safety research to date).
* A child's psychosocial makeup and family environment are better predictors of risk than the technology he or she uses (also from the ISTTF report).
* The kids most at risk offline are those at risk online (see "Profile of a teen online victim" and the ISTTF report).
* Sexual exploitation as a result of Internet activity (much less social networking) is statistically rare – "too low to calculate in the two national samples we conducted," the Crimes Against Children Research Center has told me.
* The vast majority of teens – 91% – use social sites to keep in touch with friends they see frequently (mostly at school), not strangers ('07 Pew/Internet study).
* The offenders in the vast majority of child sexual abuse cases are not strangers to their victims (multiple sources).
* Despite the establishment of one or more public profiles of "teens" (fake profiles) on MySpace by the Pennsylvania attorney general's Child Predator Unit, "there has apparently not been one successful sting operation initiated on MySpace in the more than two years during which these sting profiles have been in existence" (see "Pennsylvania case study: Social networking risk in context").

Even one case is far too many, but parents deserve to know that – no matter how many news reports they read about predators in social network sites – the risk of online kids being exploited by a stranger in such a site is statistically extremely low, and even more unlikely for healthy teens with engaged parents. Parents may find it helpful, too, to read such reports critically – maybe with their online teens, asking them about their own experiences, if any, with strangers in social sites and what they do about them.

Consider, too, the possibility that there may be other interests in addition to children's safety involved in criticizing a whole body of research and keeping predator fears fanned, including political and financial interests (see Washington policy analyst Adam Thierer's commentary and this New York Times article quoting the CEO of a company with significant financial interests in promoting the adoption of age verification of online kids, a serious privacy issue). As CNET blogger Caroline McCarthy put it, "Shock-and-awe press tactics aren't the way to go, especially because threats on the Web are much more complicated than they may appear."


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