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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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May232006

Online Predators: Much Ado About… What Exactly?

Last week on the science news website LiveScience, author Benjamin Radford offered a provocative commentary on the recent spate of news stories regarding sexual predators, including those on the Internet. He claims the media exaggerates and sensationalizes the threat of online predators, offering government crime statistics to make his argument. Is all of this news coverage, he asks, much ado about nothing?

In his essay, Predator Panic, Radford writes

The news media emphasizes the dangers of Internet predators, convicted sex offenders, pedophiles, and child abductions. Despite relatively few instances of child predation and little hard data on topics such as Internet predators, journalists invariably suggest that the problem is extensive, and fail to put their stories in context.

In particular, Radford goes after the often-quoted statistic that one in five kids has been propositioned inappropriately online, arguing that the media doesn’t paint a full picture:

Sex offenders are clearly a threat and commit horrific crimes, but how great is the danger? After all, there are many dangers in the world—from lightning to Mad Cow Disease to school shootings—that are real but very rare. Are they as common—and as likely to attack the innocent—as most people believe? A close look at two widely-repeated claims about the threat posed by sex offenders reveals some surprising truths.

According to a May 3, 2006, “ABC News” report, “One in five children is now approached by online predators.”

This alarming statistic is commonly cited in news stories about prevalence of Internet predators. The claim can be traced back to a 2001 Department of Justice study issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“The Youth Internet Safety Survey”) that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences. Among the study’s conclusions: “Almost one in five (19 percent)…received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year.”

Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the “sexual solicitations” came not from “predators” or adults but from other teens. When the study examined the type of Internet “solicitation” parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from “one in five” to 3 percent.

This is a far cry from a “national epidemic” of children being “approached by online predators.” As the study noted, “The problem highlighted in this survey is not just adult males trolling for sex. Much of the offending behavior comes from other youth [and] from females.” Furthermore, most kids just ignored (and were not upset by) the solicitation: “Most youth are not bothered much by what they encounter on the Internet…Most young people seem to know what to do to deflect these sexual ‘come ons.’” The reality is far less grave than the ubiquitous “one in five” statistic suggests.

In his conclusion, Radford suggests the media coverage is acting as a lightning rod, taking away focus from places where kids are more likely to be at risk:

One tragic result of these myths is that the panic over sex offenders distracts the public from a far greater threat to children: parental abuse and neglect. The vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by released sex offenders, but instead by the victim’s own family, church clergy, and family friends. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “based on what we know about those who harm children, the danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger.” If lawmakers and the public are serious about wanting to protect children, they should not be misled by “stranger danger” myths and instead focus on the much larger threat inside the home.

From Radford’s perspective, it seems that we’re in a vicious cycle - in this case, a vicious news cycle - regarding online predators. Of course, no one should ever discount the importance of improving online safety for children. Even if only three percent of kids have been solicited to meet someone offline, that’s an astoundingly large number, and we need to start educating kids early enough so they realize how dangerous a situation this could be for them.

Still, is the news media in a feeding frenzy over something that’s actually quite rare, or is it merely focusing on a topic that had been ignored unjustly? My gut tells me the answer is somewhere in the middle. Nonetheless, the media coverage is causing a subsequent frenzy among policymakers on Capitol Hill, who wish to look tough on online predators - even if it means rendering school Internet access impotent, as it were.

What do you think? Is the media coverage making it harder for educators to use the Internet creatively, or is it raising red flags that need to be taken more seriously? How are we, as educators, supposed to respond to the challenge? -andy

Filed under : Safety

Responses

Andy,

I read the Radford article and it is an eye-opener, providing us all an object lesson in how well-meaning people can take statistics and make them say things that really don’t add up.

Carl Bialik, who writes “The Numbers Guy” column in The Wall Street Journal Online, provided a similar article ($) in January, 2005, about the 1 in 5 statistic from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He, too, is skeptical of the figure. At the end of his column, Bialik provides space for readers’ responses, of which several make good points. One respondent in particular, however, seems to argue that the truthfulness of the stat doesn’t matter! To him, “When dealing with sexual development issues and wounds it is careless to slice and dice aggressive solicitation from inappropriate discussions.” Any kind of sexually explicit material, in other words, is inappropriate no matter who it comes from. The respondent concludes that “[w]hile I believe in truthfulness, you do children a great disservice when you shift the focus of a horrifically damaging underreported and growing problem and turn it into a graduate-student exercise of correctly representing the number of dimpled chads.”

The real problem with the 20% statistic, however, isn’t just that it’s exaggerated and spun—it clearly is—it seems as if it and other instances of fearmongering are now being used to formulate policy in schools across the land, as you and others have pointed out in other sections of this blog. The amount of fear the statistic has generated is almost impossible to combat without skeptics’ opening themselves up to criticism that they don’t care about the welfare of kids. How that viewpoint can be turned around will be a colossal task. It’s the classic kind of wedge issue that various interest groups exploit to gain influence and control.

Last, even if the actual statistic of online predation is closer to 3% rather than 20%, that’s still 9 to 10 million kids (3% of 300,000,000, the approximate population of the U.S). Although no skeptic thinks that 9 million kids getting sexually propositioned is acceptable (let alone one), it may serve only to reinforce in people’s minds the “dangers” of the Internet. Yes, 9 million is much less than 60 million (the 20% figure), but most people, I would argue, would still press schools and their Congressmen to do something about it. That something is going to be increased filtering and proposals like the Digital Online Predators Act of 2006 (DOPA). It’s the political season, remember, and there will be no end to the pandering for votes. Candidates who stand up and question the statistic or speak against DOPA risk losing an election. How many will take such a risk?

Excellent insights - thanks for sharing them. One correction, though. Shouldn’t the three percent come from the total population of children rather than the total US population? According to the latest estimate from the US Census bureau, there are a bit more than 50 million children ages 5-17 in the US (53,166,260 to be exact). So three percent of this would be closer to 1.5 million kids. This is still an enormous number, of course, but I just wanted to clarify the statistics a bit further. Does this make sense? -andy

Andy,
The key word in that oft cited one in five statistic is “unwanted.” We know nothing about the online communication that was invited, welcomed, and encouraged by teens.

The reality is that nearly all sexual abuse cases that begin online start out very innocently with flattery and trust building.

We all like to be told that we are interesting, attractive and cool. When an older person gives this kind of attention to a young kid especially one who may not be getting attention from peers or parents, it can be very seductive.

I have no hard data, but I would imagine that Mr. Radford is missing the point a little bit in much the same way that statistics of “unwanted” sexual solicitation miss the point.

Mr. Radford is right in that most kids probably are savvy enough to fend off the blatantly obvious advances of someone who asks them to get naked in front of a web cam, but my gut tells me that there are an awful lot of kids out there who will be seduced by the attention and flattery of the truly dangerous predators.

TS

Andy,

Thanks for the correction to my post above. It isn’t, as I wrote, 300 million x 3% (there aren’t 300 million kids in the U.S.; it only seems like that during my 6th period class), but 3% of about 53 million (between the ages of 5 and 17) as you stated. And as you point out, 1.5 million aggressive solicitations online is significant and not to be winked at, but not nearly so enormous as the 9 million I came up with. I apologize for the egregious error and am embarrassed by it. I should take the stern advice I always give my middle-schoolers: “Read what you write before turning it in.”

Thanks, again, for catching it. I’ll be eating chagrin for lunch today.

Don’t sweat it, Mike; it was still a good post. :-) -andy

I find it ironic that Mr. Radford cares to focus attention on this subject if he thinks it is not of any importance. More importantly, I think the media attention may not be driven by what is happening, but what the potential is for what could happen. The internet has made it very easy for inappropriate connections and discussions to be made. I think if there is even a chance of what is talked about in the media happening then we should do everything we can to prevent it from happening.

Aaron Smith writes:
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I find it ironic that Mr. Radford cares to focus attention on this subject if he thinks it is not of any importance. More importantly, I think the media attention may not be driven by what is happening, but what the potential is for what could happen. The internet has made it very easy for inappropriate connections and discussions to be made. I think if there is even a chance of what is talked about in the media happening then we should do everything we can to prevent it from happening.
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I disagree Aaron. First, the media attention is not driven by “what could happen” but by ratings, plain and simple. Do you think Dateline has done almost a dozen shows on “Internet Predators” because they are concerned by what could happen? If that is the case, then why do they not interview experts (Nancy Willard, etc.) in how to surf safely? Their coverage makes Internet predators seem like a widespread problem, when in fact a child is over 100 times more likely to be grabbed off the street by a non-Net using stranger or even more likely, a family member.

Sex sells, negativity sells, and when you combine the two and inject the Net you have the nightly crime report, or the nightly news (the two are interchangable). Have you ever seen a report of something positive happening on the Internet regarding education? How about some of the magnificent sites where students may become actively involved in solving global problems like http://www.nabuur.com or http://www.takingitglobal.org ?

Of course you haven’t. So the next time you look at Dateline or the nightly news and they’re talking about how dangerous Myspace is, ask yourself where the real danger lurks. My argument says that the atmosphere of fear brought forth by mainstream media constitutes a much more insidious threat to children in particular and society as a whole.

Regards,

Jeff Cooper
Education Technology Support Consultant

I agree with Aaron, it seems the media may be doing some good here. Many didn’t want to lock their doors at home or put bars on their windows to prevent falls…many didn’t want to wear a bike helmet or other safety gear for work or play…many didn’t want to wear seat belts…and many don’t want the hassles to lock out unsupervised internet acess for children.
Now, many know why they should. There is love in this logic. It is because as a nation we care about each other and we know others care about us…whether we like it or not.
Keep Up-Christy

Aaron and Christy,

Both of you suggest that the media are providing information, if not accurate, then valuable nonetheless. You cite the potential harm that could come to children through online predation, and that the prevention of such harm even if by faulty statistics is what matters. Have I summarized your views fairly?

The trouble with the statistics, in particular the statistic that 1 in 5 children has been solicited online, is that they’re given no context. They exaggerate, as the Radford article makes clear, the extent of the problem. Don’t let me put words in your mouths, but that exaggeration seems all right to the both of you because it makes us all more aware of the the dangers that lurk out there for children and thus may save some of them from harm.

I would argue, however, that the reporting by the media is often sensationalistic. It’s done less to alert viewers of what they should realistically fear than to heighten our collective fear, causing us to formulate policy whose unintended consequences often limit the usefulness of new technologies. More importantly, when the truth is learned, the public becomes distrustful of and inured to what the media report even when it’s truthful, a classic case of what happens to the boy who cries wolf.

Because statistics like the 1-in-5 statistic raise fear dramatically, policymakers tend to take the sledgehammer approach to solving the problem when what’s needed is a tack hammer. After all, 1.5 million children being agressively solicted is a problem, but, frankly, leaders often seem less interested in doing something useful than with appearing to be doing something.

A case in point, perhaps, was reported in an article in LegalTimes.com by Jason McClure on May 22. Attorney General Gonzales has announced a new initiative called Project Safe Childhood, citing another statistic whose accuracy is in doubt: “It has been estimated that, at any given time, 50,000 predators are on the Internet prowling for children.” And just where did the Attorney General of the United States get that statistic?

McClure writes,
Spokespersons for the FBI, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire say it’s not based on any research they’re aware of.

The AG’s press secretary has the answer, though: “That number is actually pulled from [NBC newsmagazine] ‘Dateline’ and other media outlets,” says Tasia Scolinos via e-mail. Indeed, “Dateline” reporter Chris Hansen offered the statistic last fall during one of the show’s popular hidden-camera stings of would-be pedophiles, and other media outlets have since repeated it.

Hansen’s source, according to the “Dateline” report: unnamed “law enforcement officials.” Asked who those law enforcement officials were, Hansen told Legal Times that “this is a number that was widely used in law enforcement circles,” though he couldn’t specify by whom or where.
Near the end of the article, McClure notes that Hansen named Ken Lanning, a former FBI agent and consultant to the “Dateline” show, as confirming the 50,000 predator figure. Fanning, however, told McClure that he didn’t know where the statistic came from and doubted its accuracy.
Lanning, who spent 30 years at the FBI, is skeptical about the stat, whoever originated it. “Was it just a WAG — a wild-assed-guess?” he says. “It could have been.” Lanning theorizes that there may be something special about the number 50,000 and crime scares.

In the late 1980s, the figure was cited by the media as an estimate of the number of people slaughtered annually by satanic cults. In the early 1980s, it was similarly cited as the number of children abducted annually by strangers.

“For some reason the number 50,000 keeps popping up,” he says. “Maybe because it’s not small and not large. It’s a Goldilocks number.”
With all due respect to the Attorney General, he’s in the land of make-believe here. The question is, do the rest of us want to attend to serious problems like online predation with make-believe information?

This week’s “On the Media” (NPR radio) had an interesting segment on the slippery-ness of statistics, and how unsubstantiated numbers take on a life of their own in the media. They specifically cited stories about kiddy porn and internet predation and discussed McClure’s article and the “Goldilocks” number of 50,000. Its available at onthemedia.org, program dated 5/26/06.

The Polly Klass Foundation has just completed an extensive, broad-based survey on Teen Internet Safety.
It appears to be objective and substantive. I would recommend it as a source for credible statistics on the subject (unlike the 50,000 predators “WAG.”)
http://www.pollyklaas.org/media/new-survey-data-reveals-risks.html

The last time I checked only about one in five children in America use the internet. It’s obviously deceitful propaganda. I can’t even watch the news anymore without becoming irate and shouting things like “thats not even news” or “thats a lie”. It seems to me that marketing has destroyed any chance of getting any actual news.

Actually, that’s not correct. It’s more like one in five kids don’t use the Net. The vast majority of kids are online, either at home or at school.

My husband is now facing 10 years in prison and much much more from an Internet sting operation.In trying to get stats on this ‘wide spread problem” I could find very little.The article Mr. Radford wrote supports everything I found.Law enforcement agencys love prosecuting these cases because the legislature has made it very easy.Most cases are pleaded out so the conviction rate is extremely high.No one will tell the truth about how few actual cases involving real minors are prosecuted.They use tax dollars to carry out these stings.I find it ironic that my hard earned tax dollars go to pay people to talk dirty and try to set up meetings so they can then arrest someone for doing the very same thing.We have let the government take most of our rights away based on knee-jerk reactions especially in the name of our children. We have created a new class of criminals that will end up draining our welfare system and destroy the very family unit that they claim to protect!And by the way my husband never met anyone or talked to anyone. As a matter of fact he repeatly said no but that doesnt matter under our laws.

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