Science & Technology

Two New Studies on Internet Predators: One Says Chill, One Says PANIC!


Two new studies out this week on the perils of the Internet for young users.

Study number one [PDF] is a survey of the literature on Internet predation, done by the same folks at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School who released an impressive and controversial study last year, deflating fears about the dangers kids face online.

Clearly a little gun shy after the reception of their last study, the authors present their new work with extreme caution and many caveats. But their re-examination of past studies that have fueled scaremongering headlines turns up a similar conclusion from last year's paper: People are freaking out way out of proportion with the actual risk involved in teen online behavior. A smattering of conclusions:

* Youth receiving sexual solicitations declined somewhat between 2000 and 2006, from
19% in 2000 to 14% in 2006.

* The percentage of youth reporting dangerous offline contact as a result of online
encounters is low, and Internet-initiated sexual assaults are rare.

* The overall number of cases of sexual assault reported per year has steadily decreased
since 1992, suggesting that the total number of cases of sexual assault against youth has
not increased due to the Internet.

* The percentage of youth reporting solicitation and harassment on social network sites
(SNSs) is comparable to solicitation rates across all media. Social network sites do not
appear to promote sexual solicitation to a greater extent than other forms of Internet

* Most youth report ignoring unwanted online solicitations, with 64-75% reporting no
psychological harm or distress.

* The vast majority of cases of aggressive sexual solicitation and online grooming involve
adolescent youth (primarily 13-17), as opposed to pre-pubescent children. Aggressive or
distressing solicitations are generally concentrated in older adolescents (aged 14-17).

* Youth reporting online victimization or solicitation show similar risk factors as youth
who are vulnerable in offline contexts (experienced sexual or physical abuse, parental
conflict, substance use, low caregiver bonding, depression, sexual aggression, etc.)

But this kind of sober, systematic treatment of available information doesn't do much to stem the demand for online scare stories. Consider a press release out earlier this week for for study number two [PDF]:

A shocking new report released today called "The Secret Online Lives of Teens" is a revealing peak at just how much our kids risk when they interact online, and one expert believes it's more than just a wake-up call.

[Of the 28 percent of kids age 13-17 who said they chatted with strangers]: 

   * 43 percent shared their first name
   * 24 percent shared their email address
   * 18 percent posted photos of themselves
   * 12 percent posted their cell phone number

Mary Kay Hoal, a concerned mom and global media expert who addressed her Internet safety issues by creating a social network exclusively for kids and teens –—believes that this is more than just a wake-up call for parents and teens. "This study is Pearl Harbor in the war against Internet predators," she said.