Study Accused of Exaggerating Kids' Online Safety

A report released last week by a task force set up by MySpace Inc. paints a surprisingly benign picture of the online security and privacy threats faced by children. But the report's conclusion -- that some of the common concerns about those threats may be overstated or misplaced -- is drawing sharp criticism from some quarters.

Perhaps the most scathing critique came from South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, who blasted the report for creating a "false sense of security" about online child safety. In a letter (download PDF) addressed to a working group of the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) -- which commissioned the report early last year -- McMaster asserted that the task force's findings are "as disturbing as they are wrong."

The 279-page report at the center of the controversy is titled "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies" and based on a review of academic and industry research. It was compiled by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which was created last February as part of an agreement between MySpace and the NAAG aimed at improving online safety for children, particularly on social networking sites. The AGs signed a similar deal with Facebook Inc. last May.

The task force was directed by Harvard University 's prestigious Berkman Center for Internet & Society . In addition to MySpace and Facebook -- which both pledged to add new security features to their Web sites as part of their deals with the AGs -- the task force members included representatives from companies such as Google, Microsoft and AOL and from several child safety and public policy advocacy organizations.

The report says that contrary to popular perceptions, the biggest risks that teenagers and younger children face on the Internet are cyber-bullying and online harassment -- not sexual predators . And the most frequent threats to children on social networking sites and the Internet in general come not from predatory older adults, but from their peers and young adults, according to the report.

The task force's findings shouldn't be misconstrued as a statement that the Internet doesn't pose risks for children, said John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based think tank that took part in producing the report.

The most important takeaway, Morris said, is that despite the "hype and hysteria" among the general public and the media, online risks to children are sometimes less serious and more nuanced than typically assumed. "No one is saying the online environment is risk-free," he said. "But in the end, the research shows that social networking environments are generally safe for kids and that the ones at risk online are the ones who [also] are at risk offline."

Although online sexual solicitation of minors by adults is a concern, it happens less often than popularly assumed, according to the task force's report. The number of cases that have been reported to law enforcement officials in which online contact between adults and minors leads to physical sexual encounters is relatively small, the report claims. And, it says, such situations typically involve "postpubescent youth" who are often aware beforehand that they're dealing with adults.

According to the report, the percentage of youths who said they had received sexual solicitations online declined from 19% in 2000 to 13% in 2006. More than 80% of the recipients of such solicitations are between 14 and 17 years old, the report says, and in nearly half of the cases, the youths identified other adolescents as being the solicitors.

Also, while the Internet may increase the availability of illegal and inappropriate content, that doesn't always mean minors are automatically exposed to such materials, the report says. Often, it adds, children who do view pornography online -- such as older male minors -- were actively seeking out the content.

"The research doesn't bear out this notion that social networks are cesspools of predators," said Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a Web site and forum operated by the nonprofit Tech Parenting Group. Instead, what it reveals is a more nuanced situation, in which the children who are most at risk or are engaging in dangerous behavior online also have a tendency to be at risk in the physical world, Magid said.

And more often than not, the biggest threat children face online comes in the form of cyber-bullying by their peers, Magid said. He added that understanding such issues is important because most of the policy decisions surrounding the online privacy and security of young people are being influenced by misconceptions about the nature of the threats they face.

For instance, from a policy perspective, the idea of requiring social networking sites to use age-verification technologies to protect minors is misplaced, Morris contended. "When you start looking at the actual risk, you realize that technologies such as age verification don't do much to address the problem," he said. "That's because you don't have a huge rampant problem of 40-year old men tricking 15-year olds to have sex [with them]."

As a result, using age-verification tools is likely to succeed only in driving away teenagers and other children away from what are relatively safe and healthy social environments for them, Morris claimed.

Not everyone agrees, though. McMaster, the South Carolina attorney general, said in his letter to the NAAG that the report's conclusions are at odds with his state's data on the subject of Internet child safety.

In South Carolina, at least, Internet predators "pose a clear and present danger" to children, McMaster wrote. He noted that a task force of 43 state and local law enforcement agencies formed in South Carolina in 2004 has made 147 arrests for online child solicitation thus far. Sixty-six of the arrested individuals have been convicted to date, while the rest are awaiting trial, McMaster said.

In addition, the increasing prevalence of mobile phones, PDAs, video gaming systems and online social networking sites is putting children more at risk than anytime previously, according to McMaster. Because of what he characterized as the report's incorrect conclusions "and the troubling false sense of security that they create," South Carolina is withdrawing from the 49-state working group within the NAAG that commissioned the task force's report. (The Texas AG's office hasn't taken part in the working group.)

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, said the report's findings were tainted by the involvement of social networking sites and technology vendors that have a vested interest in keeping regulators at bay. "This is a flawed report that calls out for a renewed effort to come up with policies to protect youth online," Chester said. "It's unconscionable that a company like MySpace can simply rent out Harvard's Berkman Center as its own kind of private think tank and get the results it wants."

But Kathryn Montgomery, a professor at American University's School of Communications in Washington and a former director of the Center for Media Education, said it's important to keep a sense of perspective about the report's findings.

Because the report was compiled by a task force so heavily laden with industry representatives, it needs to be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism, Montgomery said. "It doesn't surprise me that it has reached these conclusions," she said. "This is indeed what the industry wanted. Clearly, it was designed to assuage concern and keep any regulation from happening."

At the same time, the report is accurate in stating that the online security risks faced by children are overblown, Montgomery claimed. She added that social networks do give children a healthy environment in which to interact with one another, and that the public image of such sites has been diminished by an unmerited focus on security risks by policy makers and the media.

"The press likes this stuff," Montgomery said. "It's about Internet safety and kids as victims. [But] it tends to get blown out of proportion, and everybody thinks that social networks are only about that."

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