Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Another Myth Debunked: Online Threats to Children "Overblown"

Chalk up another incident of pointy heads and their academic research coming in and ruining the party.

The Internet may not be such a dangerous place for children after all.

A task force created by 49 state attorneys general to look into the problem of sexual solicitation of children online has concluded that there really is not a significant problem.

The findings ran counter to popular perceptions of online dangers as reinforced by depictions in the news media like NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” series. One attorney general was quick to criticize the group’s report.

The panel, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, was charged with examining the extent of the threats children face on social networks like MySpace and Facebook, amid widespread fears that adults were using these popular Web sites to deceive and prey on children.
Of course, to those who have been advocating nothing more than "moral panic" in the popularity of such insipid shows like "Predator," this is nothing new. But what is striking is that this panel was originally convened by the states attorneys general in the hopes of finding the opposite and more politically popular conclusion: that the internet is rife with "sex predators" who are coming to harm our children (I'll protect you, vote for me!).

The 278-page report, released Tuesday, was the result of a year of meetings between dozens of academics, experts in childhood safety and executives of 30 companies, including Yahoo, AOL, MySpace and Facebook.

The task force, led by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, looked at scientific data on online sexual predators and found that children and teenagers were unlikely to be propositioned by adults online. In the cases that do exist, the report said, teenagers are typically willing participants and are already at risk because of poor home environments, substance abuse or other problems.
But that won't stop some from using the issue for political capital anyway.

Not everyone was happy with the conclusions. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general, who has forcefully pursued the issue and helped to create the task force, said he disagreed with the report. Mr. Blumenthal said it “downplayed the predator threat,” relied on outdated research and failed to provide a specific plan for improving the safety of social networking.

“Children are solicited every day online,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “Some fall prey, and the results are tragic. That harsh reality defies the statistical academic research underlying the report.”
I'm not sure what the difference between "harsh reality" and "academic research" is in Mr. Blumenthal's opinion, but the evidence is the evidence, and the "harsh reality" is rather simple: the threat is and has been overblown by politicians who pick up votes through scaring people to death.

Thank you, Harvard.

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