Though statistics about risks in social-networking sites haven't been compiled, we do know some things about sexual predation online.
It's Usually Not 'Stranger Danger'
A 1994 study published by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Crimes Against Children Research Center, the premier source of data on child exploitation, concluded that 70 percent to 90 percent of sexual abuse is committed by "persons known to the child." When the victim has been a girl, a third to a half of the crimes are committed by family members. When the victim has been a boy, 10 percent to 20 percent of the perpetrators are family members.
Detective Frank Dannahey, the youth officer in the Rocky Hill, Connecticut Police Department we mentioned in Chapter 2, told us that most of the sexual-assault cases he works on involve people the kids know. "I think probably the number of reports about MySpace we see in the media isn't an accurate representation of what really happens." Still, he feels kids need to understand the potential.
Dannahey appeared on "Dateline NBC" in April 2006 to illustrate how "stranger danger" can occur when teenage girls allow themselves to be deceived by a clever adult (in this case, himself) using a MySpace profile to pose as a teenage boy.
Deception Is Not the Norm
Many people believe that online sexual predators are usually older men posing as teenagers, but research suggests that's not the case. Another study published by UNH in 2004this time about Net-related sexual-exploitation crimes against minorsfound that only 5 percent of offenders tried to deceive victims about being older adults; only 21 percent misrepresented their sexual motives, and most of those deceptions involved promises of love and romance, not the offenders' ultimate objective.
Force Is Seldom Used
The 2004 study also found that only 5 percent of offenders used force, 16 percent used coercion, and 3 percent used abduction to sexually exploit their victims. This suggests that, in most cases where young people are victimized, the exploitation is consensual. The research also suggests that it may be misleading to categorize offenders in such cases as strangers, because victims and offenders had typically communicated, both online and by telephone, for more than one month prior to meeting in person.
Young Teens Are More Vulnerable
The 2004 study also found that 76 percent of the victims were between 13 and 15 years old, that 1 percent were 12 years old, and that no victim was younger than 12.
As for child exploitation in general, the number of reported cases of sexual assaults against children has actually gone down precisely during the time when Internet use among young people has exploded. On August 8, 2005, USA Today reporter Wendy Koch cited government figures showing that "the rate of sexual assaults against adolescents ages 12 to 17 plunged 79% from 1993 through 2003, and the number of substantiated sex-abuse cases involving kids of all ages fell 39% in the same time period" (Figure 5.1).
Figure 5.1. A U.S. Department of Justice Juvenile Justice Bulletin explains reasons for the decline in child sexual abuse cases.
So far, virtually all the data about Internet sexual crimes against children come from studies done before the founding of MySpace and other social networking services (an update from UNH was expected right when this book went to press), but in terms of risk factors, researchers have told us that social networking is not much different from email, instant messaging (IM), and other online communication tools.
What we do know is that the number of actual sexual-exploitation cases is small relative to the millions of young people who use these sites. Let's take a hard look at the data.
Interpreting the Numbers
On April 6, 2006, an ABCNews.com subhead from a report on "Good Morning America" stated "Authorities Say 1 in 5 Children Has Been Approached By Online Predators" (Figure 5.2).
Figure 5.2. A news report claiming that "1 in 5 kids has been approached by online predators."
If this statistic really is true, it would be reason enough for anyone to keep their kids from using the Internet. But we don't know of any authority who has explicitly said this. What the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has said is that "1 in 5 is sexually solicited online." But NCMEC never said that those solicitations were mostly from adult predators. The organization did disseminate the results of a scientific survey that includes that statistic ("1 in 5 is sexually solicited online"), but the study also showed the following:
The study in question was the frequently cited, landmark 2000 report "Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth," from the same highly regarded UNH research center we quoted earlier. That's the source of the oft-quoted "1 in 5" statistic.
Based on interviews with of 1,501 youth ages 10 to 17 who use the Internet regularly, authors David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Janis Wolak wrote that "approximately one in five regular Internet users (19%) said they had received an unwanted sexual solicitation or approach in the last year. Though not all of these episodes were disturbing to the recipients; however, 5% of users (one in four of those solicited) said they had a solicitation experience in which they were very or extremely upset or afraid, cases that we termed distressing incidents."
The report, which was commissioned by NCMEC, did highlight some very important safety issues for teens, but it didn't point to anything close to an epidemic of kids being preyed upon by adult predators.
In drilling down into the report, we noticed that fewer than a quarter (24 percent) of those solicitations came from people 18 and older (in 27 percent of the cases, their age was unknown), and that 1 in 33 (or 3 percent) of teens received solicitations that were "aggressive." The 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."
Thirty-four percent of those aggressive solicitations were from adults. When you do the math (34 percent of 3 percent), you'll find that when it comes to adult-to-teen aggressive solicitations, the number is actually about 1 in 100.
That's still too high a number. When it comes to crimes against children, the only acceptable number is zero. But while we must always be vigilant about adults that prey on children, we shouldn't let that risk keep us from addressing more likely risks, including teen-to-teen sexual solicitations, which, in a small number of cases, can also be extremely disturbing or even dangerous.
Before you latch on to these statistics, however, remember they're from a study that, as of this writing, is more than six years old. UNH's update is expected to be released shortly after this book is published. If you want to read it, check our Web sitesBlogSafety.com and NetFamilyNews.orgfor updates, along with other family-tech news.
When we spoke with Wolak, one of the authors of the 2000 and 2004 studies, she said, "What puts kids at risk is when they talk about sex with people they meet online. But the vast majority of kids won't get involved in that type of situation."
All of which tells us that most teens, at least to some extent, say they're practicing what we safety experts are preaching: not responding to these sexual messages. Or, as a teen would say, they're "ignoring the posers."
Key Parenting Point
We think it's worth repeating Wolak's point for emphasis: "What puts kids at risk is when they talk about sex with people they meet online." Kids should be cautious about all messages from strangers and ignore or block any such messages that are sexual in nature. The sender can't hurt your child if there is no response.
Actions Speak Louder...
Having said that, we need to look not just at what teens say about online safety but what they do. Dr. Daniel Broughton, a pediatrician and professor at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine who served for 13 years as Chairman of NCMEC, told us about an Internet-safety talk he gave at a high school in Rochester, Minn. After his talk, he participated on a panel with five studentsfour of them use MySpaceand he had this to say: "All of the kids said that they would not be so stupid as to communicate with people online that they didn't know, but later, when asked about what they like about MySpace, they all said that it lets them meet people from all over the country."
The April 26, 2006 NBC "Dateline" program that featured Detective Frank Dannahey made the same point. Detective Dannahey set up a MySpace profile claiming to be a 19-year-old named Matt who had just moved into town. With very little effort, he persuaded more than 100 people to add him to their MySpace friends list. Three of those "friends"teenage girls from Middletown, Connecticutappeared on the program. Prior to meeting "Matt," all three of the girls said that they do take precautions. One girl said, "You don't put, like, your full name out there. You know, where you live. I don't add people I don't know. I don't, you know, talk to people I don't know," and the others agreed. Another girl told Dateline, "if people, like, talk to me that I don't know, then I justI just don't talk to them."
When "Matt" walked into the room, the girls were shocked to discover that he was actually an adult police officer. Based on what he learned about them online, Detective Dannahey was able to show the girls (and the TV audience) that he knew their full names, birthdays, where they lived, and where they hung out after school. And these are girls who thought they were being careful.