Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Real Online Predators: Fear Mongers

I was reading the SJ-R’s opinion piece today on the positives and negatives of having District 186 students equipped with laptops. Predictably, concern (even if only in passing) was raised about -DUT, DUT, DUUUUH!- online predators!

I wondered just how pervasive online predators really are. Actually, I've wondered this for some time. So I went out to the predator-invested waters of the internet to find some statistics.

The first site offered up by Goggle was this one from the group CyberAngels. Here I came across this alarming stat:

77% of youths are contacted by online predators by age 14, and 22% of children ages 10 to 13 are approached.
Wow! 3 out of 4 kids a re solicited online by age 14! Holy shit! Except common sense tells me that’s can’t be true. So the next Google hit takes me to another site, put up by the cyber monitoring software company that makes SentryPC, where they cite what is probably the correct statistic:

77% of the targets for online predators were age 14 or older. Another 22% were users ages 10 to 13.
- Crimes Against Children Research Center
Big difference between the two. One greatly overstates the problem while the other breaks down the situation, such as it is, by age group. And consider, SentyPC has a financial stake in presenting the most alarming statistic and even they don’t tough the CyberAngels nonsense.

Also from the SentryPC site there is this:

One in 33 youth received an aggressive sexual solicitation in the past year.
That’s about 3% compared to the hysterical 77% figure from the first site. Even 3% sounds a little high to me but I really have nothing to go on.

And finally there is this site that debunks some of the more alarmist statistics.

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." (A "sexual solicitation" is defined as a "request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult." Using this definition, one teen asking another teen if her or she is a virgin-or got lucky with a recent date-could be considered "sexual solicitation.")

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.

3% is not a trivial number but it's far from the panic-inducing hype some seem compelled communicate. And by the way, I found other sites that cited CyberAngels and thier rediculous 77% statistic. Bad data is infectious.

So while, yes, all kids should be educated on the Stranger Dangers of the internet, I’m not sure this should get in the way of students having access to the internet as a tool for learning. Of course, they should also be warned of the dangers of bogus information on the internet and how to use multiple and reliable sources for information rather than those who feel compelled to lie to achieve some end.

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