Social-networking sites may not be as dangerous as some officials claim.
by Anne Collier and Larry Magid
There has been a flurry of media coverage of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's announcement that MySpace had found more than 29,000 registered sex offenders' profiles on its site. As shocking as this news may seem, parents of teen social networkers deserve some perspective.
Finding and expelling sexual predators from social Web sites – something MySpace says it now does routinely – is a good thing. Other social sites are similarly cooperating with law enforcement. But this announcement from North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper (see General Cooper's "Protecting Children from MySpace," a link under "What's New" on his page) was only possible because MySpace took the initiative to develop a law-enforcement tool the federal government called for in a recently passed law but failed to create: a national sex offender database that MySpace then donated to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for broader use.
* Beyond the Web. Sex offenders aren't just in social-networking sites online. They're in chatrooms and newsgroups, on discussion boards and file-sharing networks. They've been on the Internet since before there was a World Wide Web, long before social networking took off. Now social sites are helping to expose their online activities.
* The numbers. Let's put the 29,000 profiles in context: More will probably be found, but there are more than 190 million profiles on MySpace at the moment. Now let's move from the Net to "real life." There are 602,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. That's just registered ones – those who've been caught and convicted. The vast majority of child molesters are not strangers whom children meet online. Very, very few are strangers in real life even: According to the California Department of Justice, “90% of child victims know their offender, with almost half of the offenders being a family member. Of sexual assaults against people age 12 and up, approximately 80% of the victims know the offender."
* Actual cases. Last spring I was looking for a solid figure for sexual exploitation of minors in social-networking sites after hearing Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's reference to "the towering danger of sexual predators" (see "Predators vs. cyberbullies"). General Cooper's office told me there were approximately 100 known cases in MySpace in 2005, but that number was based not on government statistics but a Lexis-Nexis search of news reports. That's 100 cases too many, but an extremely small proportion of the 12 million teens who use such sites, and it pales compared to the number of kids molested by acquaintances and family members.
* No kidnappings. In all those cases, a teenager willingly got together with someone he or she met online and, contrary to what many people think, the kids often knew what they were getting into and, in every known case, went to meet the offenders themselves. This doesn't excuse these crimes in any way, but parents need to understand how this victimization works and what signs to look for….
* Who's actually victimized. At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, gave a profile of what he described as a fairly typical victim of online predation: "Jenna" was 13 and "from a divorced family, frequented sex-oriented chatrooms, had the screenname 'Evilgirl.' There she met a guy who, after a number of conversations admitted he was 45. He flattered her, sent her gifts, jewelry. They talked about intimate things. And eventually he drove across several states to meet her for sex on several occasions in motel rooms. When he was arrested, in her company, she was reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement authorities" (see the full story). "Jenna" is not a typical teen or social networker; she's a typical victim of online predation, a high-risk teen offline, representing somewhere between 2% and 5% of online teens, Dr. Finkelhor indicated in a recent briefing on Capitol Hill.
* Social networking's very individual. Whether it's a positive or negative experience depends on who uses it. The vast majority of our online kids are for the most part using social sites to socialize with their friends at school. Some are decorating their pages and learning graphic design, writing software code, playing with digital photos, producing and editing video, and so on, all in a very collective way. Unfortunately, some teens are seeking the wrong kind of validation online for destructive behaviors such as eating disorders, cutting, and substance abuse. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline told us over a year ago that MySpace was its No. 1 source of referrals, so teens are also getting help in MySpace for depression, domestic violence, loneliness, and substance abuse, as well as suicidal thinking, through the work of 120 crisis centers nationwide whose work the Lifeline coordinates.
* Cyberbullying affects a lot more teens. So far two nationwide surveys in the US have found that about one-third of online teens in this country have been victimized by cyberbullying (one in Canada put the figure at about two-thirds for Canadian kids!). That's at least 8 million young people in the US (this too in "Predators vs. cyberbullies"). This peer harassment needs to be addressed, which will certainly happen at home and in school, as we teach our kids to be good friends and "citizens" online as well as off.
So let's keep these scary predator announcements in perspective. We want parents to have the facts so they can remain calm. When parents (and officials) overreact and start banning things, kids just go underground – as they have since the beginning of time. Only now they can do so online too – on hundreds of social networking sites, in IM, on phones and all sorts of other devices and at proliferating connection points in parks, libraries, cafes, and at friends' houses.