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Thursday, April 22, 2010

NY's e-STOP law: Not sure how much it protects

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo recently announced that his state's new "e-STOP" law has "resulted in the removal of accounts associated with at least 4,336 registered sex offenders" (RSOs, some of whom had more than one account) from such social network sites as MyLife (formerly – 2,100 accounts), Tagged (950), hi5 (575), BlackPlanet (570), Bebo (542), Flixster (508), Flickr (448), Friendster (271), eSpin (120), Orkut (113), Stickam (109), Buzznet (18), and Fotolog (12). Without providing any detail, in his press release, General Cuomo also called on more than a dozen kid sites to screen for RSOs, among them BarbieGirls, Build-a-Bearville, Club Penguin, Girlsense, Neopets, and Webkinz. I think this announcement represents progress in the form of more granular understanding of the social Web as something hugely larger and more diverse than MySpace and Facebook. But it's not a particularly protective state law in that 1) it can only affect offenders in that state; 2) if lots of states adopt such a law with lots of different reporting procedures to social sites, the burden on sites to do anything with that data becomes greater and greater, which makes cooperation less likely (e-STOP requires offender compliance, not site cooperation, partly because the sites aren't based in New York); and 3) this would be more effective as federal law, in which case it would provide some protection to minors, but only from convicted and registered sex offenders in social sites, not from those who prey on children in real life, where the vast majority of such abuses occur, presumably most going unreported (even a law enforcement officer I spoke with recently said scrubbing social sites of predators doesn't go very far in protecting children).

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Juvenile predators: New study

Much has been reported (often with hype and inaccuracy) about “pedophiles” or “predators," with people thinking these terms only refer to adults. But a new study released by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention offers quite a reality check. "It is important to understand that a substantial portion of these offenses are committed by other minors who do not fit the image" those terms tend to conjure up, according to the report, "Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors," by David Finkelhor (director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire), Richard Ormrod, and Mark Chaffin. Here are some key findings:

  • More than a third (35.6%) of those known to police to have committed sex offenses against minors are juveniles (though "juvenile sex offenders account for only 3.1% of all juvenile offenders and 7.4% of all violent juvenile offenders").
  • "Juveniles who commit sex offenses against other children are more likely than adult sex offenders to offend in groups and at schools and to have more male victims and younger victims."
  • "Early adolescence [particularly ages 12-14] is the peak age for offenses against younger children. Offenses against teenagers surge during mid-to-late adolescence, while offenses against victims under age 12 decline."
  • One out of eight juvenile offenders – are under 12.
  • 7% of juvenile offenders are females.
  • "Females are found more frequently among younger youth than older youth who commit sex offenses. This group’s offenses involve more multiple-victim and multiple-perpetrator episodes, and they are more likely to have victims who are family members or males."
  • 77.2% of juvenile offenses committed by females occur at home and 68.2% of such offenses committed by males occur at home.
  • Several intervention strategies have already been proven effective in reducing recividism among child and teen offenders, and this was encouraging:"Researchers found that one brief treatment for preteens reduced the risk of future sex offenses to levels comparable with those of children who had no history of inappropriate sexual behavior."

    The only reference to the Internet in the report is the recommendation that it be used to get "prevention and deterrence messages" to youth.

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  • Wednesday, December 02, 2009

    NY predators deleted from Facebook, MySpace

    The state of New York has made it easier for social network sites that work with it to deleted sex offenders registered in that state. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo this week announced that two sites that do use the state's database to check for predators, MySpace and Facebook, have purged the profiles of more than 3,500 sex offenders - "Facebook was able to identify and disable the accounts of 2,782 registered sex offenders" and MySpace 1,796 accounts, co-director Larry Magid reports in CNET. New York has a law that "bans many registered offenders from using social-networking sites while on parole or probation and requires all registered offenders to disclose their email addresses, screen names, and 'other Internet identifiers.' That data is provided to social-networking sites to run against their rolls" (some states just fax over a list, Facebook says, making it difficult to identify the offenders in sites with hundreds of million profiles). MySpace says there has never been a case reported of a registered sex offender deleted from the site being prosecuted for illegal contact on the site. Cuomo praised both sites for their work in this area, adding that many other social network sites are slow to cooperate. "As always, it's important to put this news into perspective," Magid writes. "It only involves registered sex offenders, which of course,is a good start, but it only includes people who have been caught and convicted. And, while the companies do their best to ferret out registered offenders who try to hide their identity, there is no way to know how many people succeed in eluding them. Also, we know of very few children who have been sexually molested by someone they met on social-networking sites or any Internet sites. The vast majority of child sex abuse victims know the offender from the real world.... And, based on conversations with security officials at social-networking companies, I am not aware of any cases where a registered sex offender has been convicted of using the site to aid in harming a child he or she met on that site."

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    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    'Overparenting backlash' & predator fears

    It's an interesting juxtoposition, Time magazine's article about a helicopter-parenting backlash and a study showing that nearly two-thirds of US parents are concerned about online predators (see Which is bigger? I suspect predator fears are a bigger phenomenon, unfortunately – despite research at the Crimes Against Children Research Center "finding no evidence online predators were stalking or abducting victims based on information posted on social networking sites (see USATODAY's coverage and mine). The Center's director, Dr. David Finkelhor, also told me in an email around that time that the number of predation incidents was too low to show up in two separate national studies of US youth – "at 1 in 500 or 1 in 1000 or below we can’t estimate" the risk level of predation, he added. Certainly even one case is too many, but concerns need to reflect the facts not the hype and misinformation parents have been subjected to since the advent of online social networking.

    But getting back to the study of parents' concerns and engagement, it was a national survey by the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan, and key findings include:

  • 81% of parents say their kids 9-17 use the Net "on their own," yet...
  • 64% of parents are either "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about online predators (half very concerned).
  • 66% of 13-to-17-year-olds have their own social network profiles, and 19% of kids 9-12 do (even though MySpace and Facebook require users to be 13 to set up accounts).
  • Despite the fact that the 2008 Berkman Center task force report stated that online harassment and bullying are the most common risk youth face online, bullying was No. 5 on the list of parents' online-safety concerns in the Mott study, after predators, privacy, porn, and online games, respectively.
  • The Mott study also broke down parental concerns by gender of children and family ethnicity, finding that "black parents report greater concern for all areas of Internet safety than do white or Hispanic parents."
  • Internet safety ranked as the 5th biggest health problem for children in the Mott Hospital's "'National Poll on Children’s Health' annual list of the Top 10 biggest health problems for children" this year, "with 31% of adults rating Internet safety as a big problem," Mott reports.

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  • Wednesday, August 12, 2009

    US sex-offender laws, registries not conducive to child safety

    The US's burgeoning sex-offender registries are becoming more of a problem than a solution. "Because so many offences require registration, the number of registered sex offenders in America has exploded," The Economist reports in a thorough look at the subject. "As of December last year, there were 674,000 of them, according to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. If they were all crammed into a single state, it would be more populous than Wyoming, Vermont or North Dakota. As a share of its population, America registers more than four times as many people as Britain, which is unusually harsh on sex offenders."

    The problem is when people "assume that anyone listed on a sex-offender registry must be a rapist or a child molester. But most states spread the net much more widely. A report by Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch found that at least five states required men to register if they were caught visiting prostitutes.... No fewer than 29 states required registration for teenagers who had consensual sex with another teenager. And 32 states registered flashers and streakers." Only a small minority of registered offenders are the "predators" so widely referred to in the news media. Take Georgia, for example. That state "has more than 17,000 registered sex offenders," according to The Economist. "Some are highly dangerous. But many are not. And it is fiendishly hard for anyone browsing the registry to tell the one from the other." The state's Sex Offender Registration Review Board found that “just over 100” of the 17,000 could be classified as “predators,” "which means they have a compulsion to commit sex offences."

    Disinformation and fear are not conducive to calm, constructive discussion about young people's online activities - in families or in policymaking circles. Overreaction by parents causes kids to go into online stealth mode (which gets easier and easier with proliferating access points and connected devices) at a time when child-parent communication is very much needed. Focusing too much on registered sex offenders causes people to forget that most child sexual exploitation is perpetrated by people the victims are related to or know in their everyday lives, most likely people who haven't been arrested, much less convicted, and therefore not people in sex-offender registries (see "Why technopanics are bad").

    But the trend is bigger and bigger registries. "Sex-offender registries are popular," the Economist reports. "Rape and child molestation are terrible crimes that can traumatise their victims for life. All parents want to protect their children from sexual predators, so politicians can nearly always win votes by promising curbs on them. Those who object can be called soft on child-molesters, a label most politicians would rather avoid. This creates a ratchet effect. Every lawmaker who wants to sound tough on sex offenders has to propose a law tougher than the one enacted by the last politician who wanted to sound tough on sex offenders."

    Writes parent and public-policy analyst Adam Thierer, "If you want to keep your kids safe from real sex offenders, we need to scrap our current sex-offender registries and completely rethink the way we define and punish sex offenses in this country." For example, a case I mentioned last April: 18-year-old Phillip Alpert will be in his state's sex-offender registry until he's 43, CNN reported. He is no predator, the way CNN tells the story. He had just turned 18 when he made what turned out to be probably the biggest mistake of his life. He and his 16-year-old girlfriend of two and a half years had had an argument. He told CNN he was tired, and it was the middle of the night when he sent a nude photo of her (a photo she had taken of herself and sent to him) to "dozens of her friends and family." Under current child-pornography and sex-offender laws, this scenario could be repeated in many other states. "Thirty-eight states include juvenile sex offenders in their sex-offender registries," according to CNN. "Alaska, Florida and Maine will register juveniles only if they are tried as adults. Indiana registers juveniles age 14 and older. South Dakota registers juveniles age 15 and older."

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    Tuesday, July 07, 2009

    Online 'walled garden' aimed at tween girls

    Here's an innovative idea for parents (of girls 8-12) who are concerned about predators: My Secret Circle. It gives new meaning to the safe playground or walled garden idea, because - with this hardware product, the My Secret Circle Access Key (pictured here), which plugs into a computer USB port - groups of real-life friends can socialize online while being completely closed off from the Internet and vice versa. As the site explains it, "My Secret Circle Friend Code Generator generates a unique 12 digit number" that can only be exchanged through an "invitation system," which allows the user to trade her code with a friend in person. "In order to become 'friends,' each girl must own an Access Key" and go through the code-exchange process herself. John Biggs at the CrunchGear blog seems to like it. The only problem is, the whole concept is based on the premise that the most common risk to online kids is adult predators. Research shows, however, that the most salient risk is cyberbullying and harassment - mean things peers say to each other; friends becoming ex-friends and violating trust; sharing passwords and impersonating peers; etc. Keeping adults out of girls' "secret circles" could actually have the opposite effect to what its creators intended: completely safe socializing. Here's the report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which contains the cyberbullying finding among others in a full review of online-safety research thru 2008.

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    Tuesday, May 26, 2009

    Predators: Parents really can worry less

    Be alert, certainly be engaged, but let's be realistic, is my takeaway from an interview Lenore Skenazy - syndicated columnist and author of Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry - gave I'm going to quote a chunk about predators in full because it's good to hear a prominent voice correctly citing the research for a change. Her comment could be mapped to the findings of last year's Internet Safety Technical Task Force.

    Salon asked her, "What's your take on Internet sexual predators?" Skenazy: "The world online turns out to be not very different from the world offline. There are some really seedy neighborhoods where you wouldn't want your kids hanging out, especially if they were wearing high-heeled shoes and fishnets stockings at night. If your kids don't go there, then your kids are not going to be stalked by predators just looking up prom pictures on Facebook. David Finkelhor, the head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, has discovered pedophiles don't want to waste their time just flipping through MySpace pages or Facebook pages. It's as futile as trying to call up random numbers from the phonebook and trying to get a date. It's just a waste of time. They would rather go for the low-hanging fruit: young people hanging out in sexually suggestive chat rooms presenting themselves in a sexual way.... If your kid is just texting his friends, or posting pictures on Facebook or AIM'ing, it's no more dangerous than them talking to each other as they walk down the sidewalk, or at the mall." But don't miss the whole interview about raising kids in an alarmist society. [For more on the latest research from Dr. Finkelhor and colleagues, see this.]

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    Tuesday, March 31, 2009

    Major update on Net predators: CACRC study

    As scary as some of the reports covering it may make it look, there's a lot of good news for online youth in the much-anticipated new study from UNH's Crimes Against Children Research Center, "Trends in Arrests of Online Predators." I hope the news coverage doesn't focus solely on the nearly five-fold increase in online predator arrests since the CACRC's last such study in 2000, but even if it does, that finding points to great preventive police work throughout the US (in 2006, 87% of those arrests involved police posing as teens, not real young people, the study found). Those arrests likely prevented crimes against children, and they're sending the message that cops are out there patrolling "the neighborhood."

    But there's a lot of other positive news in the report. For example...

  • Between the CACRC's last study of Net-related predation arrests and this one, there was only a "modest" increase - 21% - of arrests of offenders soliciting young people, its authors report, "from an estimated 508 arrests in 2000 to an estimated 615 in 2006," at a time when the number of US 12-to-17-year-olds online went from 73% to 93%, or more than 25 million, in 2006, and when their Internet use was getting a lot more social.
  • Overall sex offenses against youth declined during this period, and Internet-initiated child sexual exploitation constituted only 1% of overall child sexual exploitation.
  • Despite all the hype about registered sex offenders, only a tiny percentage of the arrests surveyed were of registered sex offenders, which indicates that, while blocking them from sites may reduce, it by no means stops sexual solicitation (and we already knew that a significant percentage of the solicitations come from peers).
  • Not good news, but a notable finding in the study is that there has been "a significant increase in arrests of young adult offenders, ages 18 to 25," which also challenges the image of "predators" presented in the news media.

    What about social networking?

    Now let's zoom in on what the authors say about online social networking - not just because it's so important to our kids (and statistically of growing use to us too), but also because of all the hype and news coverage about predators in social network sites since 2005:

  • "There was no evidence that online predators were stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on information they posted at social networking sites.
  • "The nature of crimes in which online predators used the Internet to meet and victimize youth changed little between 2000 and 2006, despite the advent of social networking sites."

    Going even further, USATODAY later cited the view of study lead author David Finkelhor that "ongoing studies show that being on a social networking site doesn't create risk for sexual victimization."

    Where the risk is

    The key to cutting through all the hype and really protecting kids from online predators is in understanding where the risk really lies. Since social networking hit the public radar screen in late 2005, the misconception has grown that the problem lies in a particular technology or "place" online. Dr. Finkelhor put it this way in an email the day the study was released: "The SNS [social-network sites] issue like the age authentication solution is all about mistaking the problem as one of 'access'," he told me. "It’s not about access. It’s about what kids do when interacting online: behaviors."

    As for what those behaviors are, Dr. Finkelhor spelled some of them out in a CBS/CNET interview for Larry Magid, my co-director: talking about sex with strangers in a lot of different places online, especially chatrooms about sex and romance, and getting into sexual relationships with people met online (see also "Profile of a teen online victim" from a talk Finkelhor gave in 2007).

    "I think the messages [about online safety] need to warn kids about the very risky things they can do in their adolescent naivete and interest in exploring the world," he told Larry. Finkelhor added a risk-prevention behavior that both the Internet industry and all child safety advocates can help promote: "We also need to encourage other people online, the bystanders, people who know these young people or see these interactions on various sites, to report it, to caution the kids about what they're doing, to intervene, to begin to feel they need to take some action to short-circuit what they're seeing might happen." Watching each other's backs, I'm hearing Finkelhor suggest. One of the country's top experts on online safety is pointing to the need to foster digital citizenship.

    Related links

  • "Social norming for risk prevention"
  • MySpace's PR problem
  • "Social media literacy: The new Internet safety"
  • "Pennsylvania case study: Social networking risk in context"

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  • Wednesday, March 25, 2009

    Stings still working, ICACs overworked

    It was a question always in the back of the minds who follow online safety: what with all the sting operations run by Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces around the country (and so visibly for so many "predator" shows by Dateline NBC), don't those predators get more cautious about making "dates" with fictitious 14-year-olds? Of course they don't know at the time that the "teens" they talk with are really law enforcement people well-trained in, but wouldn't they get some clues or get cautious and stop getting "stung" so easily? Answer: Apparently not, which says something about what a sickness pedophilia is. "Despite the publicity then and now, the bad guys haven't gone away. They've quietly multiplied. Trading child porn online and grooming underage targets in chat rooms has exploded nationwide," reports the Associated Press in an in-depth look at the subject, both big-picture and a specific case. The AP adds that - in Wisconsin, anyway - their arrests have more than quadrupled in the past 10 years. See also "Pennsylvania case study: Social networking risk in context."

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    Tuesday, February 03, 2009

    Sex offenders in social sites: Consider the facts

    The only way we can have solid, progressive parent-child and public discussions about children's online safety is if we can keep the facts in mind when we read the latest news about predators in Facebook and MySpace - facts based on consistent, peer-reviewed academic research about online risk. So here are the key facts to keep in mind:

  • Not all children are equally at risk of Net-related sexual exploitation (see "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies" from the US's Internet Safety Technical Task Force, with a summary of all child-online-safety research to date).
  • A child's psychosocial makeup and family environment are better predictors of risk than the technology he or she uses (also from the ISTTF report).
  • The kids most at risk offline are those at risk online (see "Profile of a teen online victim" and the ISTTF report).
  • Sexual exploitation as a result of Internet activity (much less social networking) is statistically rare - "too low to calculate in the two national samples we conducted," the Crimes Against Children Research Center has told me.
  • The vast majority of teens - 91% - use social sites to keep in touch with friends they see frequently (mostly at school), not strangers ('07 Pew/Internet study).
  • The offenders in the vast majority of child sexual abuse cases are not strangers to their victims (multiple sources).
  • Despite the establishment of one or more public profiles of "teens" (fake profiles) on MySpace by the Pennsylvania attorney general's Child Predator Unit, "there has apparently not been one successful sting operation initiated on MySpace in the more than two years during which these sting profiles have been in existence" (see "Pennsylvania case study: Social networking risk in context").

    Even one case is far too many, but parents deserve to know that - no matter how many news reports they read about predators in social network sites, including this week's - the risk of online kids being exploited by a stranger in such a site is statistically extremely low, and even more unlikely for healthy teens with engaged parents. Parents may find it helpful, too, to read such reports critically - maybe with their online teens, asking them about their own experiences, if any, with strangers in social sites and what they do about them.

    Consider, too, the possibility that there may be other interests in addition to children's safety involved in criticizing a whole body of research and keeping predator fears fanned, including political and financial interests (see Washington policy analyst Adam Thierer's commentary and this New York Times article quoting the CEO of a company with significant financial interests in promoting the adoption of age verification of online kids, a serious privacy issue). As CNET blogger Caroline McCarthy put it, "Shock-and-awe press tactics aren't the way to go, especially because threats on the Web are much more complicated than they may appear."

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  • Wednesday, January 28, 2009

    Pennsylvania case study: Social-networking risk in context

    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 (it's actually not, but 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 necessarily 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 the journal Pedatrics: "Our findings suggest that 15% of all youth report being targeted by unwanted sexual solicitation, 4% in a social networking site specifically. 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 specifically. "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
  • "Greatest Internet threat to teens may be teens themselves" - best coverage of Task Force report in the mainstream media I've seen, appropriately in the Los Angeles Times's Health section
  • "Key crossroads for Net safety: ISTTF report released," my thoughts on the Task Force report
  • ISTTF report

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  • Tuesday, October 14, 2008

    US's 2 new anti-predator laws

    President Bush just signed two bills into law. The first one is useful for tracking sex offenders already convicted and registered, the second seems to be more about finding predators to be arrested and prosecuted. The "Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act of 2008" ("KIDS Act" for short) requires registered sex offenders to register online identifiers - email addresses, screennames, etc. - as well as address and phone numbers. "The US attorney general will make that information available on a database where approved Web sites can cross-check their users' information and weed out any potential predators," Newsday cites Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who introduced the original legislation, as saying. Offenders who don't provide all Internet identifiers "face the same penalty as those who fail to register their home address - up to 10 years in prison." The second law Bush signed, the "PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008," "requires the Department of Justice to create and implement a national strategy, as well as a new task force, for tracking down predators on the Web and prosecuting them," a PC World blog reports.

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    Friday, September 12, 2008

    Google Street View fear campaign

    This campaign falls into the large "Predators" category of national anxiety. I'm referring to's campaign against Street View, the new photographic part of Google Maps. The organization is calling it "an entirely new threat to our families and children." We feel strongly that parents' fears about kid safety need to be reduced and understanding increased, so I'm pointing out a comment from my ConnectSafely co-director, Larry Magid, who wrote, "I admit, there may be some privacy concerns as a result of Google taking pictures of homes and businesses around the country but’s campaign to highlight child safety concerns over Google’s ‘Street View’ strikes me as absurd.... There is plenty of research [though there are many indicators now that people aren't that interested in facts, unfortunately] to show that trolling online for victims is not the way predators typically find young people to exploit. In about 80% of child sexual abuse cases, the victims and the perpetrator know each other in the real world.... If anything, campaigns like this actually increase danger to children by alarming people unnecessarily and distracting us from dealing with real risks."

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    Tuesday, August 26, 2008

    Public humiliation or Net-safety ed?

    It appears that student online-safety education took a harsher tone in Windsor, Colo., recently. The principal of Windsor High School apologized that "some of the ways" John Gay, a Cheyenne, Wyo., police officer, approached his presentation about Internet dangers "offended, embarrassed and are hurting some of our kids," Windsor Now reports. Two accounts of what happened in an all-school assembly - Officer Gay's and that of the father of one of the students present "and a lot of other people in Windsor ... don't match."

    What isn't in dispute is that the officer used the social-network profiles of students at the assembly as examples of material that encourages predators, his language was sexually graphic beyond references to rape, and one of the students left in tears. She told the paper that Gay showed the 500-student audience her phone number and "read her blogs and comments out loud." Gay told the paper that he "apologized for causing [her] any grief, but he said he would never apologize for the way he presents his material because of the seriousness of the crimes." Her father's account was that, after the officer asked her to identify herself in the assembly and she raised her hand, Gay displayed her profile and told the students she could be "raped and murdered" because of how accessible her content was. The father added that "Gay gave the example of a girl in another state who had been targeted on MySpace, and the girl was taken to an empty warehouse, was raped and shot dead," according to Windsor Now. Because she'd apparently put her phone number in her profile, Gay called her cellphone from the stage to "see if she'll come back." The father told the paper he "had no problem with the topic of the assembly, and that he doesn’t want to see [the principal] lose his job over this."

    The Denver Post reports that the principal "essentially backs up" Officer Gay, and teachers present at the assembly "corroborated Gay's version of events." [Here's Denver's Channel 7 News on this story.]

    The officer's presentation in Windsor was not unique. Windsor Now reports that Gay "travels to schools and has talked to 4,000 to 5,000 people, mostly kids." And I remember reading of a similar singling-out-specific-students methodology used in social-networking-safety assemblies in Ireland.

    The story raises plenty of questions about online-safety ed. Even if the consensus is that teens need to "wake up" to online risks, is that best done by making an example of one child among his or her own peers? And if the answer is yes, what should the tone of that exposure be? Humiliation is one of bullies' goals for their victims. An instructional tone or approach that comes anywhere close to bullying is modeling the very behavior that online-safety advocates are trying to teach youth (and adults!) to avoid. Empowering youth to think critically about what they see and post online and to be respectful of self and others - in other words, to be good citizens online as well as offline - will go much further toward keeping kids safe online than humiliating them in front of their peers.

    But it'd be great to get your views - in the forum, where two police officers have already commented.

    Related link

    "Online safety as we know it: Becoming obsolete?"

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    Thursday, August 14, 2008

    The latest technopanic

    No comparative study has been done, but - having recently traveled around the world for 10 months and talked with people involved with children's online safety in a number of countries - I can tell you more than impressionistically that no country has experienced an extended technopanic about predators on the social Web quite the way the US has. The facts about online predation have been misrepresented in the US news media and by politicians purporting to champion child protection while fanning fears that not only draw attention away from rational consideration of both the problem and solutions but also potentially put youth at greater risk. How? Fear causes the kind of overreaction that breaks down parent-child communication at a time when it's most needed - when kids can easily go "underground" in various ways, further from the informed, non-confrontational parental support that really can help them have positive online experiences.

    Fear and hype also delay rational discussion out in the public arena. We are way behind the UK in even holding meetings on social-networking-industry best practices, much less drawn up a list (as the UK Home Office has). I would love to see a comparative multi-country study on child-protection measures, but there is other, more important social-media research to be done too.

    So what's a "technopanic"? It's "a moral panic over contemporary technology," as Alice Marwick at New York University ably describes it in "To catch a predator? The MySpace moral panic." Several points in Marwick's conclusion deserve highlighting: 1) "While online predators do not represent an epidemic or socially significant problem, child pornography and child abuse are important social issues that require attention. However, they are not caused by minors using MySpace, and preventing children from using social-networking sites will do nothing to end these problems"; 2) Inaccurate "negative coverage of technology frightens parents, prevents teenagers from learning responsible use, and fuels panics, resulting in misguided or unconstitutional legislation"; and 3) "Prohibiting teens from using MySpace will not prevent them from using the site, and instead will dissuade them from talking about any problems that occur. Taking a nuanced, informed, and gradual approach to the social integration of new technologies will do more to lessen harm and improve responsible user practice than a panicked, emotional response." [See also a video report in eSchoolNews: "Online safety: Dispelling common myths."]

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    Wednesday, July 30, 2008

    Teen Second Life too safe?

    I had to add this little addendum to that last item about social-networking options because you don't see comments like this in the news too often. Liz Lawley, mother of a 14-year-old and director of the social-computing lab at the Rochester Institute of Technology, told PC World she's "strongly against some of the restrictive methods used online to segregate adults from children in an attempt to protect kids from predators. On Second Life, for example, she can't interact with her son because he has to be in the teen grid and she has to be in the adult grid," which means she can't learn about how he uses technology and he can't learn from her in real time how to function in "a social context" (I heard this frustration from educators at the NECC conference in San Antonio earlier this month - see "2 virtual worlds" - that keeping teen and adult "worlds" was educationally constrictive). Lawley said she feels "shutting down sites or trying to shut out people won't solve the problem of sexual predators." Education will, she said. Sexual predation is not unique to the online world, she added, where we don't shut down churches or bar kids from them because child abuse has occurred in some of them.

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    Friday, July 04, 2008

    Predation in online gaming

    Police have been saying that predators go where kids go, and they've been saying it since before there was an Internet. So the "place" that the news media and online-safety advocates are increasingly focusing on is online gaming. I first linked you to a story about this in January 2006 (see "Teen exploited while gaming"); in May, a report out of Cincinnati saying the FBI was investigating "a number of cases in southern Ohio" concerning Xbox Live; and last month we heard from a US attorney in Massachusetts that cases of man-to-minor predation involving World of Warcraft were under investigation. This week USATODAY reported on online-game predation cases in Utah and Michigan. Where the Xbox Live gaming community is concerned, "Microsoft trains police at national conferences," according to USATODAY. Parents need to know that "Xbox has password-protected 'family settings' that allow parents to turn off Internet access or track content and contacts. PlayStation and Wii also have such controls." I was delighted to learn last summer that there is some "neighborhood watch," or community policing, activity in Xbox Live (see this feature) and hope to see more evidence of this other form of protection that can be empowering for kids. For some context around all this, see this editorial too. The No. 1 message for parents in all this is the importance of teaching our kids to be alert and responsible wherever and whenever they're in places where lots of people interact, online or offline. Alert about what? See "How to recognize grooming" and "How social influencing works."

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    Monday, June 30, 2008

    Transatlantic predator panic

    It kind of surprised me seeing this coming out of Britain, that "the specter of the predatory pedophile is everywhere." I thought it was everywhere only here in the US, where we've had a predator panic going for some time and it has subsided somewhat (see "Predator panic," which I wrote back in May 2006). It doesn't surprise me, however, that this good question is coming out of the UK (in the same BBC blog post): "Have we got our response to child sex abuse in proportion? Or ... are we in danger of destroying the very thing we aim to protect - a trusting relationship between adults and children?" I wish blogger Mark Easton had answered or at least expanded on that theme. Instead, he makes a different but related valid point about the sheer numbers of child abusers ("The NSPCC [National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children] estimates that at any one time, 1 million children are suffering sexual abuse") and how most are people the children know (and still more are never found out). But I do think that question about society's response deserves serious consideration on both sides of the Atlantic. Heightened fears lead to strong reactions, often overreaction, which reduces trust and communication between parents and children. When parents act out of fear and get categorical, teens tend to seek even more distance from them than normal adolescent development would call for and go "underground," where - not necessarily but possibly - they could be at greater risk. I think working through the risks and adult fears together, openly and calmly, is a more effective approach at both the household and societal levels.

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    Wednesday, February 20, 2008

    'Predator' myths exposed: Study

    Despite all that parents hear, "sites such as MySpace and Facebook do not appear to increase [children's] risk of being victimized by online predators," according to a new analysis by the Crimes Against Children Research Center. US society has been overreacting, the CACRC's article in American Psychologist, "Online 'Predators' and Their Victims," indicates. Another myth, the Seattle Times reports, is that "Internet predators are driving up child sex crime rates," when in fact sexual assaults against teens "fell 52% from 1993 to 2005" (US Justice Dept. figures). A third myth is that online predators "represent a new dimension of child sexual abuse," when in fact most Net-related crimes against minors "are essentially statutory rape: nonforcible sex crimes against minors too young to consent to sexual relationships with adults." Another finding by the Center at the University of New Hampshire was that "most [teen] victims meet online offenders face to face and go to those meetings expecting to engage in sex" - they were generally not deceived by the offenders about the offenders' age or intentions (only 5% of offenders posed as other teens). One more myth: that online predators "go after any child." In fact the young people at greatest risk are "adolescent girls or adolescent boys of uncertain sexual orientation.... Youths with histories of sexual abuse, sexual-orientation concerns and patterns of off- and online risk-taking are especially at risk." See also "Profile of a teen online victim," "Online victimization: Facts emerging," and Reuters's coverage of this study. Here's the article in the February-March 2008 issue of American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association.

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    Tuesday, January 29, 2008

    MySpace, Facebook support NY law

    The headline was that New York introduced a new anti-predator law. The news was that Facebook participated with MySpace and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in the announcement. The law would, as a condition of parole, prohibit convicted sex offenders from accessing social networking Web sites, from accessing pornographic content online, and from communicating with anyone under the age of 18 over the Net, Dow Jones reports. Offenders would also be required to disclose their email, IM, and chat screennames and other Internet contact info with law enforcement and social sites so the sites can block them. Both MySpace and Facebook have worked with attorneys general for some time, but this is the first time they've appeared together at a major announcement by an attorney general and may preface Facebook's participation in the technical task force announced by 49 state attorneys general and MySpace on January 14. Laws similar to the legislation New York announced today have been passed in 11 states including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Virginia.

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    Tuesday, January 22, 2008

    FBI agent's practical advice

    The headline on this interview in the Houston Chronicle states the obvious, but its subject - FBI Agent Randall Clark of the Houston Area Cyber Crimes Task Force - does not. This online-safety expert is clearly basing his message on reality, not fears. He says things borne out in the research of people like Dr. Finkelhor (see above): "The first thing that [parents] need to know (is) what the real threat is. A lot of parents think if their child's profile is online that someone will come in and attack them. The predator will go through the grooming process first," and if our kids know not to respond (and most online kids do), there can be no grooming process (see "How to recognize grooming"). Always ask your child first what he's up to online. [News-media generalizations work less and less because a child's social-Web experience is what she makes of it; it's a reflection of her and her social life - very individual.] If your child's evasive or secretive about who he's talking with online, there could be a problem, and you need to get more involved. "Parents need to understand that their child might be actively trying to deceive them. One of the things I actively advocate is that you have got to keep an eye on your child online. You can't let them have their computer in their room. You have to check up on them. You have to visit the sites they visit." If you have the sense that she's being manipulated or influenced by someone she doesn't know in "real life" and who may be an adult, it might be good to call your local police and the CyberTipline at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children ( or 800.THE.LOST). But when the Chronicle asked Agent Clark if young people should be banned from social sites, he said, "I don't think so. Social networking sites are not evil. Just like anything else, they can be misused."

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    Friday, January 18, 2008

    Where online kids' worries lie

    A quick snapshot from a UK researcher halfway through her cyberbullying study: Well-known psychologist Tanya Byron told the Oxford Media Convention that "children are more worried about being bullied in cyberspace than any threat from paedophiles," the Financial Times reports. On pedophiles, she quoted one girl as telling her, "We kind of know who the creepy people are and what they say, and we kind of ignore them." The research shows that, "although children were adept at exploiting the ignorance of their parents about the internet and gaming, many would prefer to be able to talk to their mother or father about their online lives," the FT added. None of this sounds any different from what we're seeing and hearing on the western side of the Pond.

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    Monday, November 19, 2007

    UN to target Net predators

    One of the outcomes of the United Nations' recent Internet governance conference in Rio de Janeiro was a call to protect young Net users from predation. "The meeting, which was attended by more than 1300 representatives of governments, the private sector and the internet from 109 countries, centered on keeping children safe from pedophiles lurking on the internet," Australian IT reports. Participants said that there were disagreements on a lot of topics at the meeting, but not on this one. The Council of Europe's representative called on countries to join a convention toward greater international cooperation on catching online predators. Another principal topic of discussion was the digital divide, since only about 1 billion, or 20% of the world's population have Net access," the Associated Press reports. Less than 4% of Africans have access, for example. But the AP cites figures from conference organizers showing that, in the past decade, Net use has risen from 5% to 35% in "the less-well-off nations that hold nearly three-fourths of the world's population." Later this week, Stephen Balkam, head of the London- and Washington-based Family Online Safety Institute, offered his perspective on the Rio conference at the Huffington Post (see also his "The politics of fear" in our forum site,

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    Wednesday, October 17, 2007

    Facebook's safety agreement

    In a settlement it has reached with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Facebook will now be replying to "the most serious complaints" by users about porn and unwelcome contacts within 24 hours, its chief security officer Chris Kelly told CBS News technology analyst Larry Magid in an audio interview. In its coverage, the Associated Press says Facebook also agreed to "report to the complainant within 72 hours on how it will respond" to the complaint. In addition, Facebook will hire an outside company approved by the attorney general's office to monitor its level of response to complaints and has updated its safety information pages focusing especially on info for parents. Kelly told Larry, who is also my co-director at, that Facebook is now encouraging users to report to a parent or trusted adult as well as Facebook when things come up. The settlement ends General Cuomo's investigation of Facebook, during which he said Facebook was falsely advertising as a safer social-networking site. Though it started at Harvard and for a while focused solely on college and university users, Facebook now has some 47 million members of all ages, the New York Times reports. Here, too, is CNET.

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    Teens & stranger contact: New study

    Researcher Aaron Smith likens the Internet to a park, mall, or any other public space, where most of teens' encounters with others are fine, but some can be scary or risky. "Just 7% of online teens have ever had an interaction with a stranger that made them feel scared or uncomfortable," though nearly a third (32%) "have been contacted by someone with no connection to them or any of their friends," according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project's press material about Aaron's data memo (and Pew's latest study).

    The uncomfortable contacts - which the study found girls have more than boys - aren't terribly surprising, the study says, however, since a full 49% of social-networking teens "use these sites to make new friends." Also not surprising, the Associated Press's coverage suggests, "because Pew counts as 'stranger contacts' comments left on photo-sharing sites and requests to become friends at social-networking sites." It just may be the case, Aaron adds, that teens "see some level of unwanted contact as a known downside" of social networking - "a relatively minor 'cost of doing business' in this environment."

    The behaviors the Pew study found to be "associated with high levels of online stranger contact" are: having a social-networking profile, posting photos online, and using social sites to flirt.

    Parents, you may want to note that it's the child's intention that is key, here. The study found that "teens who use social-networking sites to flirt are more likely to be contacted by people they don't know … although a similar effect is not seen in teens who use social-networking sites to make new friends." This finding is consistent with another emerging fact in online-safety research - that it's the teens who are seeking out risk in life in general who are more at risk online (see "Profile of a teen online victim").

    Interestingly (and consistent, it appears to me, with research at the Crimes Against Children Research Center - see "New approach to safety education suggested"), Pew found that "there is no consistent association between stranger contact and the types of information posted in a profile" (e.g., first or last name, school name, email address) and "no statistically significant association between stranger contact and having a public profile (letting everyone see your profile instead of just friends).

    The study also found that despite the media attention social sites have drawn, they aren't the sole source of uncomfortable online encounters. Aaron wrote that "despite popular concerns about teens and social networking, our analysis suggests that social networking sites are not inherently more inviting to scary or uncomfortable contacts than other online activities."

    One other key point parents may find interesting: Monitoring software on computers teens use at home "seems to be more effective than filtering software in limited contact with strangers online," the study found. In his analysis Aaron later points out that that may be because parents who install monitoring software tend to be more engaged in their kids' online experiences than those who install filtering (teens know many workarounds for accessing blocked sites, whether via proxy servers or connecting outside the home).

    Related links

  • The page with a link to the full, four-page data memo, "Teens and Online Stranger Contact," in pdf format.
  • "Online victimization: Facts emerging"
  • "Social-networking dangers in perspective"
  • "Profile of a teen online victim"
  • "New approach to safety education suggested"

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  • Wednesday, October 03, 2007

    NJ AG's 'Report Abuse' button

    New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram wants all social-networking sites to have the "Report Abuse" button at the bottom of every page, reports. Her plan, she told a Gannett New Jersey reporter, "will give users a standard form to report concerns such as suspected child predators or violent or sexually explicit material. Anyone who files a complaint will receive a confirmation number and contact information they can use to follow up on their report." New Jersey-based and six niche sites run by CommunityConnect have adopted General Milgram's program so far. At first glance, it makes a lot of sense, but there are some key drawbacks: this is the program of a single US state, and social-networking sites are highly international; a number of sites, such as MySpace, Facebook, and Hi5, already have such systems in place; and, practically speaking, it's not a hot button that makes sites responsive, it's the customer-service system behind it that does. A better idea would be industry-wide, uniform best practices for abuse reporting and response to which all such sites agree to comply. But let's hear from a social site itself about this. Gannett reported that MySpace hadn't returned its call about this, so I contacted MySpace as to whether this program would make sense for its service and social sites in general. Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's (and Fox Interactive's) chief security officer responded that….

  • MySpace already has a report abuse button "on the bottom of every profile and in key areas of our site."
  • MySpace's system is more granular ("users can choose the type of problem they are reporting).
  • "These reports are then handled by a trained customer-care group - each company is unique with a unique user base and set of issues."
  • "We are an international site that must handle reports from citizens around the world - a New Jersey-centric button fails to recognize the reality of the Internet" (it's in more than a dozen countries; see also "MySpace international").
  • "A singular process doesn't work - guiding principles in this area would be more successful rather than prescriptive requirements."

    Mr. Nigam added that MySpace wasn't contacted by the New Jersey attorney general's office about the program - the company first heard about it in the news media. In related news, General Milgram's office this week subpoenaed Facebook, "requesting that the company turn over information as to whether registered sex offenders have profiles on the site," CNET reports. MySpace has responded to similar subpoenas in recent months (see "Social-networking dangers in perspective").

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  • Wednesday, August 08, 2007

    US Congress: Net-safety push

    We can expect to see some online-safety legislation coming out of Congress this fall, lawmakers themselves are saying. "Expect a new push … for laws aimed at keeping sexual predators off the likes of and elevating fines on Internet service providers that don't report child pornography," CNET reports, saying Democratic lawmakers are focusing particularly on anti-predator and -child pornography legislation. Meanwhile, Sens. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska and Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii introduced a bill that, among other things, "calls on the Federal Trade Commission to oversee a government-directed public awareness campaign" on Internet safety, PC Magazine reports. The bill would also 1) require the Commerce Department to "review industry efforts to produce online parental control technology; report evidence of child pornography; keep tabs on data collected about Internet-related child crimes; and support the development of new Internet safety technologies"; 2) require schools that receive federal Net-connectivity funds to teach students about appropriate online behavior; 3) would triple fines for Internet service providers that fail to report evidence of child pornography.

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    Friday, July 20, 2007

    Online victimization: Facts emerging

    It was great to see the Associated Press's "Net threats result of kids' online behavior." It means newspapers and broadcast media worldwide just may run this story, and more parents will be getting facts instead of scary messages based on ignorance, politics, well-intentioned guesswork. Here are some facts we have now:

    Fact No. 1: Posting personal info online isn't actually what makes kids most vulnerable to predators. "Rather, victimization is more likely to result from … talking about sex with people met online and intentionally embarrassing someone else on the Internet," the AP reports. The first form of aggressive behavior - talking about sex with strangers online - is about predation, the second about harassing or cyberbullying, which affects a great many more teens (about one-third of all online youth, according to the latest Pew/Internet study - see this).

    Fact No. 2: "Online victims tend to be teens with troubles offline, such as poor relationships with parents, loneliness and depression" (see "Profile of a teen online victim"). The kids most at risk online are already risk-seekers and -takers in real life.

    Fact No. 3: A lot of sexual-victimization cases happen at the hands of peers, not adults, the AP reports, citing the work of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. It also cites a 2004 study by the CACRC finding that, even when offenders are adults, they "generally aren't strangers, and pedophiles aren't luring unsuspecting children by pretending to be a peer."

    Certainly nobody's saying kids should completely relax about posting personal info about themselves. It's common sense that the more discreet they are the less info there'll be to use against them. But the reality is, sharing - thoughts, media, experiences - is what today's very social, user-driven Web is all about, and a lot of parents can breathe easier knowing that posting personal info online is not as high-risk as once thought.

    So what we are saying is that it's time to look at the facts we now have and adjust our child-protection strategies accordingly at home, in schools, and in policymaking. We need to…

  • …think of our online kids less as victims and more as participants on the participatory Web, of which they are the key drivers.
  • …think more in terms of online citizenship than online safety. Good citizenship includes safety; knowing that aggressive behavior puts kids at risk, we see that ethical behavior protects them.

    When Web participants become cybercitizens, with a sense of responsibility toward fellow participants and their collective space, the social Web will be a safer, better place for everyone on it.

    Related links

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  • Friday, May 18, 2007

    Profile of a teen online victim

    David Finkelhor, one of the US's top experts in online youth victimization, called her "Jenna" at the "briefing on Capitol Hill where he was presenting his research. In what he described as a fairly typical predation case….

    Jenna was 13 and "from a divorced family, frequented sex-oriented chatrooms, had the screenname 'Evilgirl.' There she met a guy who, after a number of conversations admitted he was 45. He flattered her, sent her gifts, jewelry. They talked about intimate things. And eventually he drove across several states to meet her for sex on several occasions in motel rooms. When he was arrested, in her company, she was reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement authorities."

    The picture Dr. Finkelhor - director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire - was painting as he related this actual case was very different from the impression most of us have somehow arrived at about sex crimes against kids on the Internet.

    It concerns him, he said, that somehow the American public has gotten the idea that criminals are tricking kids into disclosing personal information by pretending to be peers and lying about their sexual motives, then stalking, abducting, and raping them. Parents deserve to know that that is not what’s going on.

    Finkelhor's research shows that, "in a representative sample of law-enforcement cases, only 5% of these [online child victimization] cases actually involved violence. Only 3% involved an abduction." Almost no deception was involved. "Only 5% of the offenders concealed the fact that they were adults from their victims; 80% were quite explicit about their sexual intentions."

    Here's his conclusion: "These are not violent sex crimes. They are criminal seductions that take advantage of common teenage vulnerabilities…." Let me interrupt him just to say that here is where parents' and other caregivers' focus needs to be – teenage vulnerabilities. Finkelhor continues: "The offenders play on teens' desires for romance, adventure, sexual information, understanding." Note that last word: “understanding.” This is a question that long predates the Internet: how to make sure teens with a lot of stresses and variables in their lives don’t turn to strangers, online or offline, for understanding, sympathy, or escape?

    "Jenna" thought she was in love with the man she was with when he was arrested. Finkelhor says she didn’t want to cooperate with the police. And this was not the first time she'd met with him for a sexual encounter ("in 73% of these crimes the youth go to meet the offender on multiple occasions for multiple sexual encounters," Finkelhor told policymakers). And this is the typical scenario for teen online victimization.

    Seeing these facts, a lot of parents can breathe a sigh of relief, I think. The vast majority of teenagers simply don't match Jenna's high-risk profile and behavior. But here's where psychologists, social workers, and educators who do work with young risk-takers and run-aways come in. This emerging reality is calling on them to fold the Internet into their screening and treatment programs.

    And we all need to be addressing teens more (and parents less) with our "prevention messages," Finkelhor suggests. "So much of what we've been doing has been directed primarily at parents, but parents' credibility and authority have worn thin,” he said, “among the kids who we found to be most at risk for this kind of victimization. These are kids who have substantial conflict situations in their family." In the Q&A period following presentations, Dr. Finkelhor said he thought this group only represented "probably 5%" of online teens.”

    There is a bottom line for parents, though, now that we understand the facts better. The message to our kids is really not the old "don't give out personal information" or "keep your social-networking profile private." The most basic message is: "Don't talk about sex online with strangers." If they're not doing that, they're going to be just fine online - as far as "predators" are concerned, anyway. Then there's the peer-to-peer problem, cyberbullying. But that's another story….

    Related links

  • "Just the Facts About Online Youth Victimization" – the May 3 briefing presented at the Capitol by the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee in Washington. You'll find links on this page to a video of the whole session as well as a transcript in pdf format.
  • "Predators vs. cyberbullies: Reality check" in the March 16 issue of NetFamilyNews
  • “Internet Safety Line: We Must Teach Our Children How To Make Intelligent Choices When Using The Web” in the Hartford Courant

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