Challenging assumptions about online predators

Mike Musgrove
The Washington Post
Published Friday, January 30, 2009

WASHINGTON Are your kids safe online? A recent report about this sensitive subject is stirring up controversy.

The study, released by Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, finds that it's far more likely that children will be bullied by their peers than approached by an adult predator online.

The 278-page document cites studies showing that sexual solicitation of minors by adults via the Web appears to be declining. "The image presented by the media of an older male deceiving and preying on a young child does not paint an accurate picture," reads one of document's conclusions. "The risks minors face online are complex and multifaceted and are in most cases not significantly different than those they face offline."

In other words, children are about as savvy online as they are offline, said Ernie Allen, president of the suburban National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which contributed to the report.

"The vast majority of kids in this country have heard the messages about the risks online and are basically dealing with them as a nuisance, as a fact of life, and aren't particularly vulnerable," he said. "This report should not be read as saying there are not adults out there doing this."

But some state attorneys general are upset about a report that, they argue, lulls parents into a false sense of security. One, South Carolina's Henry McMaster, recently blasted the report, saying its findings are "as disturbing as they are wrong."

"Rapid technological advances with mobile phones, PDAs, video gaming systems and online social networking sites place our children more at risk from predators than at anytime before," he wrote in a letter posted online. "Our arrest rate is only limited by the amount of resources."

The government will be looking at this issue more than ever this year. Under recently passed bills, the Department of Commerce and the Federal Communications Commission have been assigned roles to begin online safety awareness programs and evaluate technologies that filter inappropriate content away from children. What's more, the Obama administration is planning to appoint the nation's first chief technology officer, and the topic of online safety is likely to be a priority for that office.

Alas, there's no easy fix for the risks that children face on the Web, according to the group that authored the report. The Berkman Center's Internet Safety Technical Task Force reviewed 40 technologies designed to protect children online, but none won an endorsement.

"The risks that kids are facing are changing so quickly that to choose a specific technology would work against innovation," said John Palfrey, the Harvard Law School professor who chaired the group.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, has been critical of the report because its expenses were underwritten by interested parties such as MySpace, Google and Microsoft. "Surprise, surprise," he said. "They pay for a study, and it says there's no problem. It was kind of a brilliant PR move."

Palfrey said that as a researcher and as a father, he finds this criticism perverse. "The research is consistent, every single study says the same thing," he said. "What possible agenda could I have to tell anything other than the truth?"

MySpace declined to make its chief security officer available to speak on the record about the report, but released a statement supporting its conclusions. "The safety of our users is a top priority and this report will help us innovate further as the industry safety leader," it read in part.

One online safety advocate, named as a member of the report's task force, said she is embarrassed by the report because it highlights the fact that there isn't enough good data on the subject and it doesn't give lawmakers a clear to-do list. Parents' concerns about Internet predators are sometimes overblown, said Parry Aftab of, but it's nearly impossible to tell how overblown they are; when quizzed about online activity, kids don't usually tell the truth if their parents are around, she said.

Aftab has a low-tech suggestion: a checkbox. Aftab would like to see law enforcement agencies have a standardized entry on their crime reporting paperwork, indicating whether social networking sites, texting or online games were used in the commission of a crime in which a child has been victimized. With that sort of tracking in place, perhaps law enforcement groups or organizations such as hers could begin to offer more useful information to lawmakers.

"One stupid little form just needs a checkbox," Aftab said. Without better data, "we might as well hang up our hats and go fishing."

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