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June 11, 2004

Dear Subscribers:

Here's our lineup for this first full week of June:

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Family Tech: Rethinking 'stranger danger' for teens: Part 1

Janis Wolak is a mother of two (17 and 20), sociologist, and research professor at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. I recently heard her present her latest findings on Net-based sexual exploitation of children, and - though she was addressing professionals in children's advocacy - she said some things that were very interesting to me as a parent. I'm sharing them with you, because I haven't seen Janis's fresh perspective represented anywhere in the media or other public forums.

This will be a two-part series. This week, the bigger picture on children victimized online (next week, the parenting part).

What stood out to me in Janis's findings (soon to be published by the Journal of Adolescent Health) was that "stranger danger" is not the right warning message for teenagers who spend time in online chat. Young victims of online sexual exploitation don't think of their assailants as strangers. In 50% of cases involving online exploitation, investigators believed the victims were in love with or felt close to offenders. (Parents should know that Net-initiated sex crimes against kids represent a fraction of overall sexual exploitation of children in the US - in 2000, there were 500 arrests for Net-related crimes vs. 65,000 overall.)

I asked Janis if the explanation is "grooming" - pedophiles' practice of taking sometimes months to cultivate "friendships" with the teens they target.

"I'm not sure it is about grooming," she said. "That's part of it, maybe. But in general the Net facilitates pretty intimate relationships among people. Think about how adults meet each other on the Internet. I know at least three couples who've met that way - all perfectly legitimate, having met someone they really liked and got to know very well. The only unusual thing about their relationships was that they met online.

"People develop very close friendships on the Net," Janis continued. "To me it's like the old-fashioned epistolary relationship, when people really got to know each other by writing letters. Some people say it's different when you can't know what the other person looks like. I think there are good things and bad things about that."

"With teens, they tell me they often feel as if 'you're being your true self online,' because an adolescent often feels awkward about the way he or she looks. So kids often feel an online relationship [where looks aren't a factor] is a purer form of friendship. When we did focus groups with kids, I remember people saying they had friends online who weren't in their [offline] social group. They'd exchange really deep things online, but they wouldn't want to have lunch with these people at school. The Net facilitates a kind of intimacy that has good things about it and bad things about it."

I asked Janis what struck her most about the study. "Probably that there was very little deception [in the cases of online sexual exploitation] - at least about age and sexual intent," she told me. (Her answer reminded me of the sexual candor of teenagers profiled in a recent New York Times Magazine piece about "friends with benefits" - see last week's issue).

Because of the Net's anonymity, grownups tell kids to be wary of people deceiving them online, but in most cases the offenders were completely candid; only one out of five lied about their sexual intentions to the teens they approached. Where the deceit came in was in promises of love and romance (see "Amy's Choice" in the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's NetSmartz Teens site). As for other lies, about 27% of the offenders lied about their appearance, and only about 4% lied that they were 17 or younger (while most were much older - 23% 18-22, 41% 26-35, and 35% 40 or older).

Where do these insights take us? Hopefully, to a more intelligent, informed message for our kids. Here are the online-safety tips we're generally giving teens now: "Don't give out personal information"; "People try to deceive you"; "Don't get together offline with people you 'meet' online"; "Tell us if something or someone you encounter online makes you uncomfortable."

Based on what we know now, the tips should be more like these: "Caring and responsible adults do not proposition kids, and doing so is a crime for adults - they can go to jail for it"; "Don't be a sucker online - kids who became victims of these crimes feel betrayed"; "The feeling of being understood and appreciated that an online 'friend' might give you could be a ploy or manipulation"; "If you pose for nude or sexual pictures, they may come back to haunt you" (they're impossible to delete once circulated around the Net).

Next week: Toward understanding how the online social scene works in our kids' lives. Please send us your own experiences with kids socializing online - via

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For further reading: 'Cyberlured' kids in Canada

Two cases of "cyberluring" involving Canadian teenagers were covered in the Toronto Globe & Mail earlier this year. The article cites 2001 findings from a survey sponsored by Canada's Media Awareness Network. The survey of about 5,700 students 9-17 found that 25% "had been invited to a face-to-face meeting by a stranger on the Internet. Of those invited, 15% said they had accepted the offer. About 15% of those encounters were students meeting people alone, without any friends or parents."

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Web News Briefs

  1. BT to block child porn

    Internet service providers have been saying the technology isn't available and such filtering wouldn't be economically feasible. But this week British Telecom, the UK's largest high-speed ISP announced it would soon start blocking all child pornography, The Guardian reports. Child pornography is illegal in most countries. The move "would not have been possible a year ago, but improvements in computer processing speeds means that the company is now able to block Web sites, offensive pages, and even individual images of abuse" with a technology called Cleanfeed that BT's been testing in consultation with the British Home Office. BT is talking with other ISPs about adopting the technology and will license it to them as wholesale customers, the BBC reports. The BBC adds that this development, however, will have little impact on pedophiles, who will still have plenty of avenues available to them for child-porn trafficking, such as newsgroups, chat, file-sharing, and IM. An analysis at The Register, which explains how Cleanfeed works, adds that the technology isn't even a complete solution technically - "it only looks at port 80" on subscribers' PCs, and port 80 only deals with Web surfing, not email, file-sharing, IM-ing, etc.

    As for the free-speech angle, The Guardian suggests that BT's move "will lead to the first mass censorship of the Web attempted in a Western democracy." Filtering at this level had been "associated only with oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia and China, which have censored sites associated with dissidents. But many in the field of child protection believe that the explosion of paedophile sites justifies the crackdown," according to The Guardian. Nobody ever said that online child protection is simple - especially at any level beyond the household, and it isn't even simple there!

  2. Net-enhanced 'learning'

    Just about any kid knows that instant term papers can be acquired for a fee at Web sites like,,, and "Some even sell admissions essays for college applications," the Sacramento Bee reports. The article sites a study finding that "50% of 4,500 students surveyed at 25 high schools said they had engaged in some level of plagiarism on written assignments by using the Internet." Besides the ethical issues, there are serious risks to the academic careers of students who use these services, because many educators are on to this services and know how to detect purchased work and cut 'n' paste plagiarism. And now legislation - in California, at least - may ensue. A lawmaker there wants to send a message to these sites catering to academic laziness, according to the Bee. "Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, R- Monrovia, fed up with online cheating, has proposed legislation to bar profiteers from selling, distributing, or writing term papers for buyers to submit for high school credit." An assemblywoman on the Democratic side of the aisle agrees that these sites are cheating children out of education. Civil libertarians disagree, and the resulting debate is one of the typical free- speech vs. regulation discussions that the Internet stirs up at every level of government.

  3. International police patrols in chat

    Police in individual departments, agencies, and state-level Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces have been monitoring chatrooms to catch Net-based sexual predators for years. Now chatroom monitoring is a multinational project. Hoping to introduce a "24/7 presence on the Internet," police in Australia, Britain, Canada, and the US are planning joint chatroom patrols, the Associated Press reports. Not pretending to be able to have a presence in every chatroom, the officers say they're hoping to have a deterring effect for pedophiles, the way patrolling cops do on neighborhood streets, according to the AP. The agencies involved are the UK's National Crime Squad, the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Australian Federal Police.

  4. Marketing to the digerati (teens)

    Does your kid have a special relationship with Procter & Gamble? If so - to marketers - there's method to this madness. Procter & Gamble's experimental teen marketing unit, Tremor, has established relationships with more than 200,000 teen movers and shakers - "people who operate in multiple social circles and are likely to talk openly [including online] about the products they use," reports. The teens like the arrangement because they get free samples, and they're "flattered and excited to be among the first to get a look at the product." Another marketer, BrandPort, pays teens to watch its ads - $5 for every 10 ads watched, with reactions given. In both cases, the idea is to get the young person (who spreads the word via chat, IM, email, blogs, journal sites, etc.) to "engage with the brand." Extraordinary measures are increasingly needed because media consumption has changed, and young people not only watch less TV and use the Web more, they multitask, using both media and more at the same time. So they're distracted. Marketing is more targeted and more assertive, and "viral" online communications have to be part of the media mix, these marketers say.

  5. One teen's very easy summer job

    It's one of his summer jobs, anyway. In the last few weeks, a 15-year-old in Atlanta has made almost as much money on the Internet as he expects to make all summer working at a local restaurant. He's been selling hard-to-obtain Google Gmail accounts on eBay. "An upcoming free email service from the popular search engine has people so eager to get an account before all the catchy email account names are swept up that they're willing to pay for one of the relatively few test accounts available," the Washington Post reports. Pierce noticed that one eBay seller was selling multiple accounts, so he bought a bunch for "a little under $30 apiece," according to the Post, and turned around and resold them for around $60 each. His highest bidder paid him $102.60, and he'd made over $1,000 as of June 6. Alas, these eBay niche markets can be short- lived. Four days later we read in Wired News that "the bottom had fallen out of the market for Gmail invitations." As of this past Wednesday afternoon, sellers were lucky if they got $20 per.

  6. Leapster: For parents or kids?

    Our family may be unusual, but in our case the LeapPad latptop-like system was more for us than for our son. He played with it on his own about three times and that was the end of it. We didn't feel inclined to force it on him, though I suspect most parents would justifiably want more of a return on their investment. Judging from this Washington Post piece, the same may not be true for Dylan, 5, and Anna, 8, who tested the Leapster, Leapfrog's newer, Gameboy-like product, for their mother, Post writer Hope Katz Gibbs. They liked it, it seems, but it's not clear if they were playing with it of their own accord, and Hope suggests the jury will be out until more (educational) games are available for it. We'd love to hear your family's experiences with these extremely popular LeapFrog products, experiences which I have a feeling will confirm we're in the minority.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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