Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Threat of Online Predators?

By now, you may have heard about the internet safety report by a task force commissioned by 49 State Attorney Generals that has called online predator threats to children as overblown. If you haven't here is a quick synopsis:

As part of an agreement last year with MySpace, FaceBook and other social networking companies, an internet safety task force was created in conjunction with 49 Attorney Generals from across the United States. The Internet Safety task force from Harvard University, commissioned by the Attorney Generals, released the result of its study earlier this month in which concluded that the problem of bullying online and offline poses a more serious problem than sexual solicitation of minors online. This is in line with the results of a report published by the University of New Hampshire last year, which came up with the same conclusion. Both reports eschew the stereotype of the adult online predator that poses as a teenager to trick other teenagers into meeting them and then attacking them. Most scientific data of online sexual predators shows that children are unlikely to be sexually propositioned online by adults. Those that are, usually are willing participants in the conversations and tend to be more at risk teenagers who suffer from poor home environments, depression and severe self esteem issues. However, there are lots of teenagers who have poor home environments, and have low self esteem issues who are groomed and taken advantage of by online predators. Does this report downplay these threats? Some Attorney Generals think so, notably Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett. Attorney General Corbett has called the report misleading adding that the threat of internet predators is "real" and that his office has 183 internet predators in the last four years.

Now to add to the argument, the Center For Safe and Responsible Internet Use has issued a study in response to Attorney General Corbett's statements about the 183 arrests. Upon analyzing the 183 cases the Center For Safe and Responsible Internet Use found:

  • Only 8 incidents involved actual teen victims with whom the Internet was used to form a relationship.7
  • In 4 of these incidents, teens or parents reported the contact. The other 4 cases were discovered in an analysis of the computer files of a predator who had been arrested in a sting operation. Five of the cases had led to inappropriate sexual contact. The other situations were discovered prior to any actual contact.
  • There were 166 arrests as a result of sting activities where the predator contacted an undercover agent who was posing as a 12 - 14 year old, generally a girl.
  • The vast majority of the stings, 144, occurred in chat rooms. Eleven stings occurred through instant messaging.
  • There were only 12 reports of predators being deceptive about their age.

The entire report can be read here http://csriu.org/PDFs/papredator.pdf

No one denies the fact that their are bad people online that wish to do harm to children, but the reports suggest that it isn't the widespread threat that it has been believed to be in the past. A teenage internet user is much more susceptible to falling victim to cyber bullying, online identity theft or installing malware on their computer than being stalked by a sexual predator. However, should law enforcement, parents, or teenagers be any less vigilant about online predators because of these reports? That is the question...

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