David Finkelhor on Net Safety

An interview with David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and a leading scholar on Internet safety


"It's not primarily having a social networking profile or giving out
personal information that puts kids at risk
What puts kids at risk are things
like having a lot of conflict with your parents, being depressed and socially
isolated, being hyper, communicating with a lot of people online who you don't
know, being willing to talk about sex online with people that you don't know."  – David Finkelhor

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In the suicide case of 13-year-old
Megan Meier, a 49-year-old mother, Lori Drew, allegedly posed as a teen-age boy
to gain the affections of young Megan under false pretenses. After a
flirtatious online relationship, this fictitious young man "broke up"
with Megan and Megan hanged herself about an hour later. To many, this is a
case of cyberbullying, though not a very typical one for several reasons
discussed here. David Finkelhor is Director of the University of New
Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center and one of the world's
leading scholars when it comes to the victimization of children both on and off
the Internet.
In an interview with Dr. Finkelhor, I started by asking him to
explain just how common or rare this type of situation happens to be.

FINKELHOR: Bullying happens an
awful lot. As far as we know, it's not typically adults who are bullying and
harassing young people. It tends to be more often young-people-on-young-people,
so this case was somewhat unusual in that sense. But the Internet does allow a
lot of permutations that we might not have thought about in the area when
children are more confined to their own kind of ghetto of childhood, so this is
something that we might see more of.

MAGID: Moving away for a moment
from the adult issue, how common is cyberbullying among children and teens and
how much of an impact does it have on them?

FINKELHOR: We're really getting
our legs on this topic in trying to understand more about it. Bullying in
general takes a terrific toll on children. In fact, when we talk with young
people in an interview, this is one of the perils that they are most concerned
about, and certainly many studies have shown it to have serious psychological
impact. Our studies of harassment online suggested that it can have an impact
on kids as well. But how serious it has to be and how long it has to go on
before it really begins to kind of be corrosive, I don't think we know all of
that yet.

MAGID: What's the difference
between and schoolyard bullying and cyberbullying?

FINKELHOR: A lot of comparisons
have been made, but I think we are still learning more about this. People like
to emphasize the degree to which bullying can be anonymous online and the
degree to which it could be amplified by being disseminated to large numbers of
people. And [these factors] certainly increase the seriousness. But on the
other hand, the physical intimidation dimensions aren't quite as great as in face-to-face
bullying. And we don't know if there might in fact be some substitution of online
bullying for old fashioned face-to-face bullying which means that it is
somewhat less scary in some of its dimensions.

MAGID: I believe it was you, who
reported that roughly 32-33% of youths have received some type of online
harassment. Is that the case?

FINKELHOR: Right. That's what our
survey shows, but there's been some use of the term "bullying" applied
to that, and that's probably not correct because the bullying authorities like
to restrict that term to harassment and threats that occur over a continued
period of time and that involve an imbalance of power between the perpetrator
and the victim. And most of these online harassment situations don't involve
those two elements.

Risk is not what a lot of people think

MAGID: This [Meier case] isn't
what you would typically call a predator case – although it is a case where an
adult is posing as a child, but in this case not for sexual purposes but to
otherwise harass. But let's talk for a minute about predators. Because, if you
look at some of the media reports, it seems almost as if there's a predator
behind every keyboard. How prominent is it?

FINKELHOR: "Predator"
is not a word that I like to use a whole lot myself. "Offenders," "perpetrators,"
"abusers," I think, work a lot better. There's an image that
developed in the media and to some extent in the educational programs that
there are these Internet predators who trail all over the Internet looking for
innocent young children who inadvertently log their personal information into a
service online and then, using that information, they stalk these kids; they
pretend to be other kids and lure them to meetings where they abduct them, rape
or murder them. That's not really, I think, a good description of the majority
of the sex offenses that we see adults committing against children online. They
primarily involve adults who are offending against teenagers. We see very few
cases of young children, so primarily it's 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds. There
was a perception that people tend to think these adults usually are hiding the fact that they're adults
and eventually the kids come to see that they have a sexual interest in them as
well, even if they don't make that clear at the very beginning but certainly do
when a meeting occurs.

MAGID: You're saying that kids
usually aren't surprised. If they do actually wind up with a face-to-face
meeting they're not terribly surprised once they get there.

FINKELHOR: The kids typically go
to these meetings and know that this is an encounter with somebody whom they're
romantically interested in or whom they are looking for an adventure with and
where sex is on the agenda. These much more fit the stereotype of what you
might call statutory sex crimes than either child molestation or forcible rape.

MAGID: In 2000 you did a study
that reported that 1 in 5 youths had received an unwanted sexual solicitation
and when you repeated that in 2005 it went down to 1 in 7, which is good. But
I've read some reports in the media and from politicians that have used the
word predator, that is, 1 in 5 or 1 in 7 young people have been approached by
an online predator. Could you put that into some perspective?

FINKELHOR: In that survey we did
find that 1 out of 7 young people who use the Internet [received] an unwanted
sexual solicitation or inquiry from someone online. But those aren't all
predators by any stretch of the imagination. I like to say it's more like 1 in
25 kids who encounter what we call an aggressive solicitation, somebody who
sent them a kind of sexual message and is trying to follow that up in some way
by actually trying to meet them or arranging to contact them offline as well.

MAGID: Right. But some of those 1
in 7, some of them are either minors – about half, I think – and then some of
them, as you said, are non-aggressive, that the kids just deal with in some

FINKELHOR: Yeah, you can imagine,
given the anonymity of the Internet, there are a lot of people who are just
being fresh, I think. They're asking kids, what's your bra size? Or they're
making some rude sexual comment to them, it's not necessarily a prelude to an
attempt to meet them or sexually seduce them even.

MAGID: And then finally when you
talk about the 1 in 25, and when you look at other data about "at risk
kids," it appears and again this is from looking at much of your research,
that there is a pattern of risk and there are certain activities that kids
engage in that tends to increase the risk. It's more or less sociological or
psychological conditions under which kids find themselves. And I am wondering
whether we can begin to get a better understanding or have a better
understanding as to who is at risk and what can be done for this particular

What puts kids at risk

FINKELHOR: That's a good
question. It's not primarily having a social networking profile or giving out
personal information that puts kids at risk. What puts kids at risk are things
like having a lot of conflict with your parents, being depressed and socially
isolated, being hyper, communicating with a lot of people online who you don't
know, being willing to talk about sex online with people that you don't know. I
think also, for example, having sexual orientation questions probably puts kids
at risk

MAGID: Being in doubt about your
sexual orientation?

FINKELHOR: Yeah, cause kids are
online kind of looking for help on that and that makes them vulnerable. These
are kids who have encountered trouble and are having difficulties in various
places in their lives, probably because they don't have good relationships, or
they are in conflict, don't have people to confide in. They're out there and
more vulnerable to these sexual exploitations.

MAGID: This doesn't sound like a
new story. This sounds like something that people have been talking about for
decades in terms of kids at risk. Is there anything special about today's high-risk
kids versus the ones who were around 20, 30, 40 years ago?

FINKELHOR: That's a good
question. They certainly have many of the characteristics of kids that we've
always regarded as being high risk. Although because the Internet maybe has not
penetrated to some of the lower socio-economic strata yet these kids just may
be kind of better off than the troubled kids that a lot of our social programs
have been oriented towards in the past.

MAGID: And that brings up the
final question, which is social problems. What can be done? I mean, do we need
to educate the entire population or do we really have a sub-section of the
population that needs some kind of special service in terms of online-safety

FINKELHOR: I think we need to do
both. Both what you'd call primary and secondary prevention. I think that there
are good Internet citizenship and safety skills that probably everybody should
have. But we need a second tier of prevention programs that really are targeted
to kids that might be at high risk or might be thinking about doing more edgy,
dangerous kinds of things. They might be having some kinds of problems, and
helping them to see what some of the consequences might be [would be helpful]. As
for that group in particular, I think we need to say talking to their parents
about how to better control and supervise them may not really work. These are
kids who frequently are not amenable to parental control or maybe don't have a
very good relation with their parents. So we need to find ways, I think, to
reach them more directly.

MAGID: David Finkelhor, the
Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of
New Hampshire, thank you very much.

FINKELHOR: Thank you. That was a
good conversation.





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