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March 16, 2007

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Predators vs. cyberbullies: Reality check

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 next week.]

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

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Web News Briefs
  1. Law enforcement on the social Web

    These two stories illustrate how Web 2.0 has upsides and downsides for police too. It appears to be mostly upside, the way social-networking sites have become an investigative tool. The first story, from the Associated Press, is a very interesting one about how police not able to recognize credit card thieves in a Home Depot security video posted it on YouTube, "then emailed the clip's link to about 300 people and organizations. In this case, "the suspects were ultimately arrested," but - though the video generated publicity and thousands of viewings online - it was "old-fashioned police work" not YouTube that ultimately led to their arrests (the article relates another case, in London, Ontario, where YouTube figured more prominently in an arrest, and this one reported by WFSB TV in Connecticut). The other story is about how police, too, are the subject (negatively portrayed) of YouTube videos, the article continues. And bogus police profiles and pages have turned up on the Web. USATODAY reports that "at least 16 police or sheriffs' departments appeared to have profile pages on MySpace to seek investigative tips or deter predators, but USA TODAY found that at least six were fakes." As for the real ones, one is the Miami-Dade Police Department, which says that "more than 500 people have asked the department to be their friend" - in other words, to be on their MySpace friends' lists. The Department says people see it as a predator deterrent. But nothing beats helping kids develop the filter between their ears - their critical thinking. A Wyoming law enforcement officer told USATODAY that he "has seen people pose online as police officers to lure children into trusting them."

  2. Bulk cellphone calls

    Two bits of mobile social-networking news: one a service already available, the other coming to a phone near you. You've heard of bulk emails to all your friends and your kids' bulletins on MySpace - well, now there are bulk cellphone calls to all your friends at, for example, People set up a free account at, create your contact list on the site, and use your access number to get prompted through making a group call to everyone on your contact list. Here's coverage at the Sudbury (Mass.) Town Crier. As for finding mobilely social friends, an up and coming development is the social phonebook, not only providing phone numbers but physically locating and showing where friends are at any given moment. Helsinki-based Jaiku "takes the user's contacts and adds presence, location, and availability information to the normal static listings," according to the Mobile Tech News at Super convenience, but think about all that information (about, say, a teenager) somehow getting into the wrong hands. Food for parental thought.

  3. Cyberthieves: Sophisticated

    It's not so much that they're getting smarter as that "tools for carrying out attacks [on family computers] are readily available and harder to purge from computers," reports Washington Post security writer Brian Krebs. Yes, a virus clicked on in an email can grab info, but it can also leave keylogger software that grabs even more. Brian led with the story of a man whose infected PC gave cyberthieves his bank account and health insurance info and social security number. But this could be anyone. This particular group of Eastern Europe-based thieves "infiltrated the new-accounts department of a major US bank, a medical patient database in Georgia, and an Alabama district attorney's office containing a database used by police departments to trace people," Brian writes. His blog post gives details. What to do? In his blog, Brian writes (tell your kids!): "Don't download files of questionable origin or click on email attachments willy-nilly.... I cannot overstate the importance of Windows users being extremely cautious about opening unexpected attachments in emails, even if they appear to come from someone you know. When in doubt, fire a quick e-mail back to the sender to ask whether they really meant to send you the attachment."

  4. Viacom vs. online teens?

    The New York Times says Viacom's $1 billion lawsuit against Google's site "is the clearest sign yet of the tension between Google and major media companies." I'd say it's probably bigger than that. It's the clearest sign yet of the tension between the social, media-sharing Web and the media industry. It's a story that affects teenagers especially because they love to share media - their own homemade videos (some with background music sold by huge media companies) and everybody else's, including clips from favorite TV shows, music videos, etc. This lawsuit could change the Web's media-sharing landscape and, the San Jose Mercury News reports, "could end up rewriting one of the key laws of the Internet age: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act." A search of Google news turned up 1,200+ news articles from news outlets around the world.

  5. High-profile child-porn conviction

    Then-teenager Justin Berry wasn't Ken Gourlay's only victim, but it was Justin who first accused him. Gourlay was convicted last Friday of enticing and molesting a minor and distributing child pornography over the Internet, among other charges, the Associated Press reports. "Gourlay was one of several men arrested on charges involving child pornography after Berry began working with the Justice Department. One of them, Gregory Mitchel, pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 150 years in prison. Berry's testimony before Congress came after his case was highlighted by the New York Times" in December 2005 (see "Kids & Webcams"). The AP adds that "prosecutors say Berry, who now is an adult, was lured to Ann Arbor from California in 2002 to attend a computer camp and was molested by Gourlay."

  6. Child porn: 15-year-old charged

    It's very difficult to determine how much criminal intent a minor has in cases of possession of child pornography, the Bangor (Me.) Daily News reports. Bangor police confiscated a 15-year-old boy's home computer on Dec. 20 after finding it contained child porn. They said they collected enough computer evidence to charge him with "felony possession of sexually explicit materials." Apparently, his possession of the images was reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's, which is how Bangor police learned of case. As of this report, it's not known if the boy will be prosecuted. A lot of cases like this don't get prosecuted for reasons of "lack of criminal intent," according to a police officer on Maine's Computer Crimes Task Force policy board. Cases like this that are most likely to be prosecuted are those in which the subject has disseminated the child-porn images, he said. The Daily News also reported that," on average, police officers in Maine seize a computer every two days."

  7. Social-networking news bits

    There is so much social-networking news these days that I thought you might prefer them in a collection of little bytes:

    • Extended families may be interested in social networking specifically for them. Two examples written up in AppScout are and, where families can share photos privately (CNET has a video about Famster).
    • University students may be interested in, an alternative to Facebook, the No. 2 social-networking site (after MySpace). According to this reporter at DePaul University's newspaper, "on a College Life profile, rather than one extended page, there is a series of tabs that each hold a different category: profile, blog, photos, favorites, event calendar and a completely new category: the wishlist."
    • Parents worldwide may be interested in what this mom in Oz says about teen self-exposure in blogs (she chooses not to read her daughter's): "They're doing exactly what we did at their age, even if we did it through physical space - the telephone and the diary. But what's shocking to us is the extent of self-exposure they embrace. These kids live their lives online, but to their parents it feels like public nudity." Don't miss her whole thoughtful commentary in the Sydney Morning Herald.
    • As for the numbers: Agence France Presse reports that "visits to social-networking websites climbed 11.5% February with big surges in popularity seen in smaller players." Traffic to MySpace, which got 80% of social-networking visits, rose 10.2% and to Facebook, 9.1%. Visits to Buzznet and iMeem (which each had less than 1% of social-networking traffic in February), more than doubled, AFP cited Hitwise as saying.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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