Pennsylvania case study: SN risk in context

Just how dangerous is social networking, compared to other social media kids use? Here's a case study of one state's arrests which offers parents some perspective on Internet-related child exploitation.

by Anne Collier

This is interesting in light of criticism by state attorneys general of the peer-reviewed research in the Internet Safety Technical Task Force report this month: a just-released study from the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use (CSRIU). The attorneys general have said the research is outdated (see the Wall Street Journal) and not enough about predators in social-network sites, so study author Nancy Willard analyzed some data that couldn't be more current: all online predator arrests in Pennsylvania from 2005 through the middle of this month, cited in press releases in Attorney General Tom Corbett's Web site.

In a recent statement, General Corbett said, "I believe this [Task Force] report is incredibly misleading…. The threat is real…. In the last four years, my office has arrested 183 predators, all of whom have used the Internet for the purpose of contacting minors to engage in sexual activity."

No one – in the Task Force report, the research community, or certainly the online-safety field – disagrees that online predation is a risk, and all agree that the attorneys general are performing an important public service in reducing Internet-initiated predation. The risk does need to be put into context, though. A whole lot of parents (those of the 65% of US teens with social-network profiles, according to Pew/Internet) would really like to know how dangerous social networking actually is, since it's so much a part of their kids' lives now.

Willard's analysis looks at 1) Internet-related child sexual exploitation in context (what proportion of overall exploitation involves even the Internet, much less a single social technology on it) and 2) social networking in the context of all online social technologies teens use – chat, IM, etc.

Internet-related child sexual abuse in Pa.

* During one year (FY '06-'07) Pennsylvania rape crisis centers and sexual assault programs served 9,934 child victims of sexual abuse, Willard reports.
* Over four years (2005 through ’08), the Pennsylvania attorney general's office made 183 arrests concerning Internet-related child sexual abuse through its Child Predator Unit.
* Only 8 of the 183 cases involved actual minors (the rest were sting operations involving police posing as minors) – though certainly these arrests may've prevented cases involving minors.
* Only 5 of the 183 involved sexual contact.

The only national figure we have is from 2000, when the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that 508 out of 65,000 child sexual exploitation cases were Internet-initiated (where offender and victim "met" for the first time online). [An update from the CACRC is expected to be released soon.]

Social networking compared to other Net technologies

Willard writes that, "because the attorneys general have been focusing their attention on the social networking sites, MySpace and Facebook, this analysis gave special attention to any case that mentioned any activity occurring on either of these two sites." She found that:

* 144 of the sting operations involved chat, 11 instant messaging, and 9 unspecified in the press releases; the rest were cases of child porn possession.
* Only one case involved both a teenager and MySpace, "a re-arrest of a person who had already been arrested through a sting," Willard reports.
* One case involved a police officer committing child sex crimes: He "was arrested for sexual abuse of many teens with whom he had interacted in the line of duty. [He] also had a MySpace account with links to teen girls, but there was no assertion that these communications had led to sexual activity."
* "One predator in a sting provided the agent with a link to his Facebook page," Willard writes.
* "In 5 of the stings that took place in a chat room [no minor involved], reference was made to the fact that the predator had either looked at the "teen’s" MySpace profile or suggested the "teen" look at his account."
* And the Child Predator Unit itself has, since November 2006, "maintained one or more public sting profiles [depicting teens] on MySpace," but in four years not one arrest has occurred as a result of communications through its fake teen MySpace profiles.

What Willard concluded was that, though a single state's arrests are not a representative sample, "the arrest reports on the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s site fully support the insight and conclusions of the Berkman Task Force Research Advisory Board. The incidents of online sexual predation are rare. Far more children and teens are being sexually abused by family members and acquaintances…. It appears that chat rooms are far less safe than social networking sites and that there is limited inclination and ability of predators to use social networking sites to contact potential teen victims.

"However," she notes, "some predators are apparently looking at non-protected social networking profiles to obtain more information about victims," and more research on the secondary role social and media-sharing sites might be playing is needed. The attorneys general are right – we need more granular understanding of how predators operate – and we can only get that when they make their case records available to the research community. By law, the Electronic Privacy Communications Act, Internet service providers (including social sites) can't share data on users' communications without a subpoena or other court instrument. Once that subpoena has been served, for example by an attorney general's office, that information can be made public. Let's hope the attorneys general, who didn't provide predator data to the Task Force researchers whose report they're criticizing, can soon make it available to the research community.

Let's broaden the discussion

But online crime needs to be seen in context too. Crime must be addressed, but so much of what is happening online – including among teens, of course – is good. Or neutral. Or bad but not criminal. Increasingly, the Web mirrors all of "real life." Our kids deserve more from parents than fear about it and from the rest of us than overemphasis on crime.

I like the metaphor used by Barry Joseph of Global Kids, a nonprofit organization in New York that does a lot of educational work with youth in virtual worlds. Referring to Teen Second Life, an all-teen virtual world that may merge with the main SL world, he writes, "Why is it important for youth to have their own community? How is this different from a focus on keeping youth safe? The difference is that keeping youth safe, while a desired goal, sells everyone short. Youth deserve support to access their inherent abilities to fully participate in society.

"Let's take the example of a playground," Joseph continues. "What makes a playground safe? Recreational equipment that isn't broken, for example. Barriers to keep out drug dealers or predatory adults. Authority figures to police the space. How would this playground change if it were redesigned to not just keep youth safe but also support their development? The recreational equipment would be selected with an eye toward their developmental impact, such as supporting collaboration or creative play…. The authority figure would do more than just watch and observe but get actively involved, building supporting relationships with the youth, and offer activities designed to engage and develop their abilities."

How might our kids' experience of the social Web change if we were to redesign our collective thinking about it and them – if we saw them less as potential victims and more as participants in and producers of a digital place they can help make safe?

Related links

* "How risky are social networking sites?", by Michele Ybarra and Kimberly Mitchell in Pedatrics: "Our ?ndings suggest that 15% of all youth report being targeted by unwanted sexual solicitation, 4% in a social networking site speci?cally. Similarly, 32.5% of youth report being harassed, either by threats or aggressive comments, or having rumors spread about them," 9% while on a social networking site speci?cally. "Youth are less likely to be targeted for unwanted sexual solicitation in social networking sites than they are through IM and in chat rooms, however, and are less likely to be a target of harassment on social networking sites than they are through IM."
* "For even more context (and a view from Washington), head over to Adam Thierer's blog,
* "New study challenges attorneys general on predator danger," by Larry Magid of CBS/CNET and
* "Social networking benefits validated" in the Washington Times
* "Serious informal learning: Key online youth study" in NetFamilyNews
* "Key crossroads for Net safety: ISTTF report released," my thoughts on the Task Force report
* ISTTF report

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