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Predator panic increases risk

Some attorneys general keep harping on social networking predator dangers, despite evidence to the contrary

I've been an Internet safety advocate since 1993 and right now I'm discouraged and angry about what's going on in this field. I'm angry because people who ought to know better are trying to mislead the public with false information about online risks which is diverting attention away from real risks. And I'm not alone. Many respected online safety organizations and leading youth-risk researchers are trying to shift the discussion away from mostly predator danger to youth behavior risk. Thanks to some politicians, it's an uphill battle.

Online safety groups and public officials should be spending our time educating families on how to avoid real risks that affect most kids-- like bullying, harassment and unwanted exposure to inappropriate material. We also need to do a better job of identifying and reaching the small minority of "at risk" kids who are putting themselves at greater risk by the way they behave online.

At issue is the constant drumbeat of predator panic coming from state attorneys general including Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Roy Cooper of North Carolina who are co-chairs of the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking which represents attorneys general from 49 states. Although their rhetoric is purported to help protect young people from harm, the actual impact of their campaign to rid social networks of predators may be inadvertently putting young people at greater risk.

In addition to shifting attention away from more common online dangers, they have proposed the use of age-verification and parental controls which could actually increase risk by driving teens "underground," possibly to overseas sites that are far more dangerous than sites like MySpace and Facebook.

What's more, all the hoopla is disrupting the work of several of the most respected non-profit Internet safety organizations which, ironically, have to spend resources countering this misleading information at the cost of focusing on how to help young people use the Internet more safely.

A bit of background

For more than two years these and other elected officials have been talking about predator dangers on MySpace and other social networking sites and calling for the use of age-verification technology to help separate minors from adults. A year ago, the working group of Attorneys General entered an agreement with MySpace to form a Task Force to study the issue. After months of careful consideration including a review of all research, the Task Force came back with a report that questioned the prevalence of predator danger and also questioned both the desirability and effectiveness of using any single technology to verity the age of users. Instead of carefully considering the report, it was rejected out of hand. The attorneys generals reaction to the report was best summed up by Blumenthal who recently said it was "based on outdated and incomplete data -- falsely downplaying the threat of predators on social networking sites." I have a great deal of respect for much of the work that Blumenthal, Cooper and other attorneys general do for public safety and to protect consumers but when it comes to Internet safety, they continue to rely on anecdotal evidence rather than available peer-reviewed academic research (PDF).

Disclosure: I served on the Task Force as co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from several Internet and social networking companies including MySpace and Facebook. I also served as a member of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force and am the founder of SafeKids.com.

Now there's a new argument based on the disclosure last week that MySpace has evicted 90,000 registered sex offenders from its roles. In a press release, Blumenthal said "This shocking revelation -- resulting from our subpoena -- provides compelling proof that social networking sites remain rife with sexual predators." But what Blumenthal failed to point out is that 90,000 is not the number of currently or recently evicted registered sex offenders (RSOs) on MySpace but a cumulative number based on all the RSO's MySpace has ejected since two years ago when it adopted technology to identify and remove RSOs from its roles.

Facebook too

In the mean time, Facebook has been under attack for its own reported predator problem. Tech Crunch, last week, ran a story with the headline "Thousands Of MySpace Sex Offender Refugees Found On Facebook." It reportedly got the information from John Cardillo, CEO of Sentinel, the security company that helps MySpace and other social networking sites identify registered sex offenders so that they can be removed. Facebook is not one of Sentinel's customers but says that it employs other methods to attempt to identify registered sex offenders and others who might endanger its members. This includes relying on Facebook members and working directly with state databases and state attorneys general according to Facebook spokesperson Barry Schnitt.

But, the attorneys general who are screaming about predators don't seem to have information about specific individuals harming children. Facebook according to Schnitt, "is not aware of a single case where a registered sex offender has contacted a minor through Facebook." The same is true on MySpace. According to MySpace chief security officer, Hemanshu Nigam,"not one of the deleted MySpace offenders has ever been prosecuted for criminal misconduct with a teen on Myspace."

Based on surveys with teens, I suspect that this is largely because the vast majority of teens are savvy enough to avoid these creeps.

As you would expect, officials from both Facebook and MySpace say that they are doing all they can to rid their sites of registered sex offenders. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll be 100% successful. Short of shutting down their services, I can't think of anything that can be done to completely eliminate even registered sex offenders, let alone the much larger number of offenders who haven't been caught and convicted.

They're everywhere

At the risk of contributing to the paranoia, it's important to point out sex offenders are also in the real world. Unless we decide to keep them in jail forever, they are going to be among us. They go to malls, they shop at grocery stores, they live in neighborhoods and many have jobs. I know for a fact that there are registered sex offenders living in walking distance from my house and I have no doubt that my children have encountered them in the real world.

And then there are the ones who haven't been caught. It's a known fact that some of them teach in our schools, patrol our streets, preach in our places of worship, work in our hospitals and clinics, and coach our kids. What's worse, family members, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, account for "a quarter to a third of offenders." Strangers make up the smallest group with estimates ranging between 7% to 25%.

Strangers who meet their victims on the Internet represent an extremely small percentage of all cases, especially compared to family members. It's analogous to worrying about being killed in a plane crash instead of focusing on driving safely. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is one of several safety organizations that no longer condone the use of the phrase "stranger danger."

As I've pointed out in previous articles, researchers who study sexual assault cases have found very few actual cases of children being sexually molested as a result of a contact they made on the Internet. It happens, but it happens in far fewer numbers than other forms of sexual abuse. And when it does happen, it is almost always a case of a teenager who is taking extraordinary risks online including -- in most cases -- engaging in sexual conversation with a person known to be an adult. I'm not saying this to blame the victims or excuse illegal behavior of adults, but to point out that how young people behave online affects their risk.

It's time that all of us -- politicians too -- start looking for real solutions and talking with real experts, not just relying on anecdotal data and provocative sound bites.

For more perspective, check out CNET News' Caroline McArthy's post on this subject