Lenore Skenazy: Would you like some cyber-candy, little girl?

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry and founder of the blog by that name, explores the fears and the facts concerning online predators.

By Lenore Skenazy

“NEW STUDY SHOWS HUGE INCREASE IN ARRESTS OF ON-LINE PREDATORS!”

I can guarantee you, that is the headline you are about to hear on TV and read in the papers. And, terrified for your children, you will keep watching or reading, which serves the media darn well. They have lured you in and are holding you captive.

Sort of like … online predators!

But the folks who actually DID the study would like to clear things up.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and his co-director, Janis Wolak, took a look (PDF) at the number of arrests of on-line predators from 2000 to 2006. The number of creeps caught soliciting undercover cops grew from 644 to 3,100 – a big leap indeed, but mostly attributed to the fact more cops and more cops are on the web, impersonating cyber-tarts and fishing for arrests. Meanwhile, the number of guys soliciting actual youths grew, too. To 615.

Now, look, no one wants these predators to exist at all. Be gone, you jerks! But we are talking about fewer than 4,000 perps, all told, compared to tens of millions of minors on line. In fact, over the same years studied, Internet use among minors leapt from 73% to 93%. So now all but 7% of off all American “juveniles” are on line, and 615 guys were picked up for propositioning them (odds of 39,000 to 1).

Still, it rankles to think of some creep luring a 10-year-old to the playground with the promise of Hannah Montana tickets, right? Of course it does. (Especially if you’re Hannah Montana’s publicist.) But that is not what’s happening.

“The facts do not suggest that the Internet is facilitating an epidemic of sex crimes against youth,” said the report, point blank. First of all, the majority of the folks arrested were chasing those cop decoys. And as Finkelhor said in a little e-mail to me, those cops “act far more enthusiastic when the proposition comes down than most teens are likely to act.”

We’re not talking entrapment here – per se. But if a youth isn’t actively appearing psyched for sex with strangers, his/her chances of being stalked are microscopic. Quoth the report: “There was no evidence that online predators were stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on information they posted at social networking sites.” So your kids can have a Facebook page and it’s not like hanging a red light over their virtual door. That’s why we’re letting our older son get a Facebook page, in fact.

Moreover, the creeps thought they were soliciting adolescents, not little kids (and not – duh — cops). Many of the perps were age 18-25. Not to let them off the hook, but a 19-year-old propositioning a 17-year-old just isn’t as disturbing as a middle-aged guy with tuna breath promising some kid a GameBoy in exchange for a “cuddle.”

Finally – and I know it sounds like I’m from the Internet Predator Defense Society, but bear with me – the study also found out that most of the offenders were “open about their sexual motives in their online communications with youth.” So they were upfront about their goals.

Let me be equally upfront about mine. I am not pro-predator. Hard to find someone who is.  But I am not pro-hysteria, either. And any report about online predator arrests increasing is going to generate even more fear among parents already convinced their children are in mortal peril from the moment they wake up (if they haven’t gotten their head stuck in the crib slats) to the moment they go to bed (if they haven’t been abducted on their way home from Mandarin lessons).

I’m sure soon we’ll be seeing more stuff we can buy to keep our kids “safe” from this newest overblown danger. And more books and articles pleading with parents to “please watch your children at all times!”

That’s the parental mantra these days: 24/7 kiddie surveillance.

The fact is: We live in the safest times ever for children. Until we accept that happy fact, we will fret and overspend and drive everyone crazy, including those surprisingly resilient people: our kids.

Yes, the ones barely looking up from their screens.


Lenore Skenazy is founder of freerangekids.com> and author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.

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