Newsflash: Online Predator Danger Overblown

It’s funny because I wrote about this in my previous post Press Releases That Cause Panic. Now there is even more data to back this up. At a recent panel in D.C. called: Just The Facts About Online Youth Victimization, the top researchers in the field basically debunked the stranger danger fear as being greatly exaggerated, painted a clearer picture of who is really at risk, and admitted while the fear-based approach has been working in terms of teens being more careful and using more enhanced privacy settings, it probably should be retired. You can listen to the audio from the panel here.

Here are just some of the revelations I heard:

– The predominant victims of online sex crimes are not young children — they are teens
– The crimes do not involve online predators posing as other children to stage an abduction or assault
– Only 5 percent of these cases involve violence
– Only 3 percent involved an abduction
– Only 5 percent of the offenders concealed the fact that they were adults from their victims
– 80 percent were very explicit about their sexual intentions
– These are not violent sex crimes but “criminal seductions” that take advantage of teenage vulnerabilities, teens are lured after lots of online chatting to encounters they know will be sexual in nature
– In 73 percent of these crimes teens have met the perpetrator on multiple occasions and have had multiple sexual encounters
– In half the cases the teens claim they were in love with the adults
– In a quarter of the cases the “victims” ran away from home to be with these adults
– In 2000, of all the statutory rapes reported, only 7 percent happened where the people met online

Which teens are most at-risk for these encounters? Teens who are already at-risk — they have experienced some sort of physical or sexual victimization or are experiencing a high degree of conflict at home. These teens are willing to talk about sex with strangers and go to sex sites. This means that if 14-year-old Susie innocently posts a photo of herself and her friends wearing their high school t-shirts, the chances of a predator showing up at her school to abduct her are slim to none.

danah boyd had an excellent suggestion for where we should be investing our money to protect teens — in outreach. Just like there is street outreach to teens who have run away or are in trouble, there needs to be virtual outreach to at-risk teens online — a way to report red flags on blogs and MySpace profiles before something really bad happens, and the news media reports that the signs were all there…One site that does actively monitor teen posts is The Diary Project. But on sites with millions of users, it’s nearly impossible to monitor every post. Maybe MySpace and Facebook could add a feature where any user under 18 either sees a window with a list of resources and hotlines for all kinds of issues or gets a periodic message encouraging teens to call if they or someone they know or even another teen they don’t know appears to be in trouble.

To me, this panel should be a big story. It completely contradicts most of the existing parent education around these issues, often being led by [well meaning] law enforcement.

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