Predators & cyberbullies: Reality check

Parents who have seen "To Catch a Predator" ask how much they should be worrying about their social-networking kids. Here are some facts.

by Anne Collier

Parents who have seen "To Catch a Predator" on Dateline NBC are asking how much they should be worrying about their social-networking kids. They need to know that the Predator series is no representation of risks to youth on the social Web. It's not even presenting a credible picture of sexual predation in general, we find in an in-depth look at the social costs of producing "The Shame Game" in the Columbia Journalism Review. It shows how Dateline is fueling public fears not because it's representing reality but because it's representing reality TV.

"The explanation of why Dateline has seized on this mythical trend [of growing numbers of sexual predators] to anchor its venerable news show," CJR suggests, "is that reality TV has so altered the broadcast landscape that traditional newsmagazine fare — no matter how provocative — just doesn't cut it anymore."

The CJR article continues, "Dateline has argued that 'Predator' serves a genuine public good, but it could be argued that, in fact, Dateline is doing the public a disservice." One significant disservice is the way Dateline presented the numbers. "When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave a speech about a major initiative to combat the 'growing problem' of Internet predators, he cited a statistic that 50,000 such would-be pedophiles were prowling the Net at any given moment and attributed it to Dateline." An investigative reporter looked into the figure Attorney General Gonzales used and found Dateline had gotten it from "a retired FBI agent who consulted with the show" and who, when asked, suggested he kind of pulled it out of the air (Dateline has since disowned the figure, CJR adds).

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal refers in a January press release to "the towering danger of sexual predators." He has been working with attorneys general in many states on this, so I called a couple of AGs' offices themselves for a more reality-based figure, not for predators but for something more concrete: cases of child exploitation related to social-networking sites nationwide. I was given an approximate figure of 100 known cases – in 2005, the best figure they had, and all MySpace-related because the number came from a Lexis-Nexis search of news media reports (parents may have noticed that the news media have focused largely on MySpace). The Uniform Crime Reporting System hasn't caught up with cybercrime, I was told by an aide.

One hundred cases is 100 too many, but parents also deserve to hear how these cases occur. As social media researcher Danah Boyd recently said in an interview at AlterNet, "we do not have a single case related to MySpace where someone has been abducted. We've had plenty of press coverage of these things, and every single one of them has proven not to be an abduction, but a runaway situation, or the kid was abducted by their noncustodial parent" (to her last point, "according to data compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 70% of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by family members or family friends," CJR reports – not by men like those caught by Dateline).

In other words, in all the social-networking-related cases we know of so far, the minor went to meet the adult. These kids are seeking the wrong kind of validation, support, or "thrills" by communicating with strangers. They're high-risk teens who are not getting the validation and support all children need and deserve from their families and friends. They're engaging in self-destructive behavior when contacted and groomed by strangers via email, online chat, IM, and social-networking and other kinds of Web sites. Such contacts existed long before online social networking and of course long before the Web came along.

Let's look at those contacts for a moment: A study released last summer by the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC) at the University of New Hampshire "found that the number of kids getting unwanted sexual advances on the Internet was in fact declining," CJR reports. Most kids simply delete those messages, and if they do, their senders have no way of knowing their physical location unless they broadcast it on a public Web page. "That doesn't mean Internet sex predators don't exist, but Dateline heavily skews reality by devoting hour after hour of primetime programming to the phenomenon."

So do other news outlets, such as ABC News, last spring misrepresenting the CACRC's landmark 2000 study by saying that "one in five children has been approached by online predators." If they had a chance to read that study, parents will find that less than a quarter (24%) of those solicitations came from people 18 and older. Only 3% of the youth surveyed received solicitations that were "aggressive." "The [CACRC study's] authors define 'aggressive' as 'a solicitor who asked to meet them somewhere, called them on the telephone; or sent them regular mail, money, or gifts'," we tell you in Chapter 5 of our book, MySpace Unraveled. The figure for adult-to-teen aggressive solicitations was about 1 in 100. Still too high a number, but far fewer than one in seven (the CACRC's latest figure), and it's important to note that the 2000 study also said "none of the solicitations led to an actual sexual contact or assault."


Now let's look at a very different number deserving of parental attention: peer harassment, or cyberbullying. Compare the figure of 100 adult-to-minor predation cases in 2005 to 6.9 million "cases" of teen-to-teen cyberbullying. The latter number comes from a 2006 study by criminology Profs. J.W. Patchin and S. Hinduja which found that 33.4% of US online teens have been victimized by cyberbullying (see "Bullies Move Beyond the Schoolyard"). According to Jupiter Research, there were 20.6 million US teens online by the end of last year. One third (33.4%) of 20.6 million suggests 6.9 million incidents of cyberbullying. These are the best figures we have on the noncriminal, peer-to-peer side of the social Web's risk spectrum, but are actually much better numbers (based on sound research methodology) than the 100 cases of sexual predation compiled from news media stories. The CACRC researchers tell me they're starting work on a study that will update and vastly improve on that 100-cases figure, but it won't be publicly available for over a year.

[And consider one more notable number on the positive side of social networking: MySpace is the source of more than 100,000 visitors a year to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's Web site. It's the hotline's single biggest source of referrals. More about this here.]

Even if the 100-cases sexual-predation figure is multiplied 10-fold and the 6.9 million cyberbullying one isn't conservative enough, we can still safely say that a great many more teen social networkers risk harassment by peers than by sexual predators. This suggests to me that the focus of parents' concerns at the very least needs to widen. Yes, there are predators out there. Alerted to that, online teens will be even better at deleting any sexual solicitations and not talking about sex online, the cardinal rules for protection from predation (see "How to recognize grooming"). But parents and teens also need to calmly, fearlessly discuss things like: what's happening online among their peers at school, how we present ourselves online (see "Protecting teen reputations on Web 2.0"), what is/isn't appropriate to upload (see "Teens' child-porn convictions upheld"), how people try to manipulate people (see "How social influencing works"), and how we all need to think about how we're treating each other – online just as much as offline.

Related links

* Of Dateline's Predator series, David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, writes: "Law enforcement should not be a free enterprise zone, where any combination of public citizen and media enterprise can stake out a claim. It is the quintessential function of government, because there are risks to our freedoms if this function is abused, and we want careful legal structures and public accountability to govern its operation" – in the Tampa Tribune. He earlier this month told the Chicago Tribune, "Having a blog or being part of a social network site doesn't increase risk."

* Of risks in blogs and social sites, Mark Franek, dean of students and teacher at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia wrote that one misconception is "that they are dangerous cruising grounds for sexual predators. Children have a higher chance of getting abducted on the way to or from school, it seems to me, than as a result of any of their online activity…. When I ask my Internet-savvy high school students what they do when they receive messages from unknown parties, particularly from suspicious users who appear to be older than they claim to be, they tell me that they delete them or just don't respond" – in the Philadelphia Inquirer (archived in his site).

* "Verifying kids' ages: Key question for parents" in NetFamilyNews, 7/21/06 and CNET's update on the age-verification law being discussed in Connecticut (see NFN 3/9/07 on its introduction)

* "Responsible social networking" – the latest research on the subject from the Pew Internet & American Life Project

* "MySpace lawsuits break legal ground" – CIO Magazine looks at the legal environment for social-networking sites (see also "Court dismisses suit against MySpace" and "Families sue MySpace").




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