Net threat to minors less than feared

A much anticipated report concludes that children and teens are less vulnerable to sexual predation than many have feared.

Larry Magid
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.
Larry Magid
6 min read

WASHINGTON -- A long awaited report from the Internet Safety Technical Task Force concludes that children and teens are less vulnerable to sexual predation than many have feared. The report also questions the efficacy and necessity of some commonly prescribed remedies designed to protect young people.

The task force was formed as a result of a joint agreement between MySpace and 49 state attorneys general.

Over the past couple of years, several state AGs have been looking into potential dangers to youth, and some have called for social-network sites to use age verification technology to confirm the ages of users in an attempt to prevent adults from or interacting online with minors. The task force includes representatives of Internet and social-networking companies, security and identity authentication vendors, and nonprofit advocacy organizations. It's chaired by John Palfrey of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Disclosure: I served as a member of the task force, representing ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization I co-founded along with Anne Collier. ConnectSafely receives financial support from MySpace, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and other Internet and social-networking companies. I am also founder of SafeKids.com and am on the board of directors of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is represented on the task force.

Based on data analyzed by its Research Advisory Board, the task force concluded that "actual threats that youth may face appear to be different than the threats most people imagine" and that "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."

While the task force found that youth risk from predators is a concern, the overwhelming majority of youth are not in danger of being harmed by an adult predator they meet online. To the extent that young people have received an unwanted online sexual solicitation, data from a 2000 study and a 2006 follow-up from the Crimes Against Children Research Center concludes that "youth identify most sexual solicitors as being other adolescents (48 percent in 2000; 43 percent in 2006) or young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 (20 percent; 30 percent), with few (4 percent; 9 percent) coming from older adults, and the remaining being of unknown age."

What the task force did find is that "bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most salient threats that minors face, both online and offline." Partially because researchers can't agree on a definition of bullying and harassment, the actual risk is hard to quantify, but it is clearly much higher than the risk of being harmed by a predator. Some studies suggest that as many as 49 percent of youth have experienced some type of bullying or harassment. In many cases no serious emotional or physical harm occurred. However, a study by Michelle Ybarra and Janice Wolak found that "39 percent of victims reported emotional distress over being harassed online."

There is also a widespread belief that deception is often involved where adults pose as teens to engage with young people, but research shows that that's rarely the case. The report found that "although identity deception may occur online, it does not appear to play a large role in criminal cases in which adult sex offenders have been arrested for sex crimes in which they met victims online." Interviews with police show that "most victims are underage adolescents who know they are going to meet adults for sexual encounters." This does not imply that such relationships are healthy or safe, nor that we should blame the victims or tolerate the actions of adults who engage in sex with minors. But it does suggest that child safety advocates need to take a more proactive role in helping teens understand the risk of engaging in relationships with adults.

Importantly, the task force found that online risks "are not radically different in nature or scope than the risks minors have long faced offline, and minors who are most at risk in the offline world continue to be most at risk online." For example, "a poor home environment full of conflict and poor parent-child relationships is correlated with a host of online risks."

The attorneys general who called for the task force were anxious for us to study the efficacy of using age verification to help limit inappropriate contact between adults and children online. To help in that job, the task force formed a technical advisory board (TAB) composed of technology experts from Harvard, MIT, Dartmouth, University of Massachusetts, University of Utah, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Bank of America. This board looked at a wide range of technologies including age verification and identity authentication, filtering and auditing, text analysis, and biometrics.

What the TAB found was that age verification technology can be used to identify adults and therefore help prevent minors from engaging in adult-only activities such as accessing adult content or purchasing alcohol or tobacco. There were several technologies submitted by companies that could identify adults based on accessible records such as credit reports, criminal history, and real estate transactions, but these relatively automated systems cannot reliably identify or verify the age of minors because, as the TAB concluded, "public records of minors range from quite limited to nonexistent." Documentation about young people such as birth certificates, passports, and school records are restricted by federal law for some very good privacy and security reasons.

Age verification options presented by some companies would allow parents to request that their child's school verify his or her identity and age, but these proposals have their own critics including those who worry about the cost, the possibility of privacy or security leaks, and the financial model presented in some cases that includes providing marketers with information about kids.

The TAB also looked at "peer-based" verification schemes that "allow peers in a community to vote, recommend, or rate whether a person is in an appropriate age group based on relationships and personal knowledge established offline" but worried that with these methods "users can vote as many times as they wish to artificially raise or lower a peer rating." There were concerns that "minors might organize against another minor in their ratings or recommendations in an online form of bullying."

At one task force meeting, a company presented technology that tries to distinguish between an adult and a child by analyzing the bone density of the person's hand. Another tool attempts to identify an individual through facial recognition to match that person against a database of registered sex offenders.

Although the TAB expressed "cautious optimism" about the possibility of using technology to protect kids, it concluded that "every technology has its problems" and that "no single technology reviewed could solve every aspect of online safety for minors, or even one aspect of it one hundred percent of the time." The bottom line was that "technology can play a role but cannot be the sole input to improved safety for minors online" and that "the most effective technology solution is likely to be a combination of technologies."

But even if these technologies can be employed effectively, there remains the question of whether they are necessary or helpful. Using technology to separate kids from grown-ups doesn't address the fact that kids are far more at risk from other kids than from adult predators.

Another danger is that age verification or new rules could be used to keep kids off of social networks or require parental consent. But before issuing rules about this, authorities should explore possible unintended consequences such as isolating kids, causing them to go underground, failing to serve kids from dysfunctional families, and preventing kids from accessing vital services such as the Suicide Prevention Hotline or one of the many online self-help groups.

The task force report will have its critics, including possibly some attorneys general and others who feel that it underestimates the risk of online predators. Indeed, sting operations from law enforcement (as well as the TV show To Catch a Predator) demonstrate that there are plenty of adults who, if given the chance, would engage in sex with youth they meet online. But, based on the research presented to the task force, it appears that the vast majority of young people are savvy enough to avoid such encounters.

Still, there remains a minority of youth who--for a variety of psychological and social reasons--are vulnerable both online and offline. More research needs to be done to identify these young people and provide them with resources and protective services. The fact that most kids are safe is reassuring but it's not sufficient. If even one child is in danger, then there is work to be done, and that is one thing everyone who cares about this issue can agree on.