Predator Panic Making a Comeback

by Larry Magid

I thought we were past the days of “predator panic.”  Around 2006, when To Catch A Predator was on TV just about weekly, there were lots of news stories about the dangers kids face on the Internet.  A federally funded study conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center was being commonly misquoted by politicians and media to suggest that 20% of American kids had been approached by an online predator. Attorneys general from around the country were investigating MySpace and other online teen hangouts which were thought by some to be predator playgrounds.

It wasn’t true then and it’s not true now.

What the Data Show

The very research organization whose data was being misinterpreted helped to set the record straight about predation.  It happens, but it’s very rare.  That “one in five” number referred to unwanted sexual solicitations by — in most cases — other young people.  The researchers found that most kids handled the solicitations in stride and that none interviewed had actually engaged in sex with someone that they first met on the Internet.  For more on this, see the research center’s Internet fact sheet that explains the actual facts behind the study.

Of course there are some horrendous cases were young people have been groomed by strangers to eventually meet up and engage in sex.  Those cases of statutory rape are awful when they occur but they are very rare.  And cases of adults entrapping or soliciting pre-pubescent children online are, as far as we know, non-existent.  What is far more common are adults engaging in sexual activity with children they know from the real world.  According to CACRC, in 2006 arrests of online predators constituted about 1% of all arrests for sex crimes against children and youth.

Fact is, children are many times more likely to be sexually molested by a coach, a teacher, a clergy member, a police officer, a doctor, an uncle or even their own parent than by someone they first encounter online.

Undoubtedly you have heard or read about sexual predators who have been arrested for soliciting minors online. It’s true. There are plenty of cases. In fact, between 2000 and 2006, according to the research summarized in Trends in Arrest of “Online Predators” (PDF), there was a 21% increase in arrests of offenders who solicited youth online for sex. But during that same time, “there was a 381% increase in arrests of offenders who solicited undercover investigators.”  In 2006, according to the research, “of those arrested for soliciting online, 87% solicited undercover investigators and 13% solicited youth.”

In 2009 I had the honor of being on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) which was set up as a result of an agreement between 49 state attorneys general and MySpace. The task force looked at all peer-reviewed literature on teen and child Internet dangers and concluded “the image presented by the media of an older male deceiving and preying on a young child does not paint an accurate picture of the nature of the majority of sexual solicitations and Internet-initiated offline encounters.”  The task force  did find that “bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most salient threats that minors face, both online and offline.” As I wrote in my summary of the task force report, “Net threat to minors (is) less than feared.”

Although some attorneys general wound up dismissing the ISTTF report, its publication was followed by a distinct change in rhetoric on the part of the AGs and the media.  The steady stream of articles and speeches about the “epidemic” of risk began to quiet and, increasingly, people involved in youth risk and Internet safety switched their attention to the more likely risks associated with bullying, damage to reputation, privacy and commercial exploitation.

It’s Back

But now I’m starting to see a swing back towards predator panic. It’s not as bad as it was a few years ago, but I am seeing more attention to the still rare phenomena.

Trust, a new movie directed by David Schwimmer and staring Clive Owen, tells the story of a 14 year old girl who “falls in love” with what turns out to be a man in his mid-thirties.  The story shows how the perpetrator groomed the girl, starting out by telling her he was 15 and eventually “admitting” he was a graduate student. Only when they met did you realize he was in his thirties. Yet she still had sex with him and would have likely done so repeatedly had a friend of hers not told authorities about the relationship.  The movie is actually pretty good, except that it doesn’t put the statistical likelihood of the event into context.  At one point in the movie, an FBI agent says that he has a backlog of 2,000 cases, but it’s not revealed that those are rape or statutory rape cases, mostly unrelated to the Internet. For more, see Stephen Balkam’s analysis of Trust on Huffington Post

I’m also seeing an increasing number of articles worrying about predation and even seeing some well respected parenting experts warning kids about the risk.  While it’s always good to be aware of any risk, it’s also important to realize that the danger of being harmed by a stranger you meet online is, statistically, very low.  Yes, it’s a good idea for youth to think critically about anyone they meet online and not get together with people without bringing along parents or at least a posse of friends, but it’s also important to put this risk into context.

Real Risks

In the mean time, we need to pay more attention to real risks children face including sexual assaults within the home and within their community as well as violence, the effects of poverty and a deplorable diet and lack of exercise which is leading to a vast increase in juvenile diabetes and other health risks.

Sometimes it seems as if we approach Internet safety the way some people approach airline safety by driving recklessly to the airport and then worrying about whether the plane will crash.

For more on this issue, please see Anne Collier’s NetFamilyNews post ‘Juvenoia,’ Part 1: Why Internet fear is overrated

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