Friday, January 16, 2009

Internet Not So Scary, Study Finds

The findings reported here are not so surprising, but the fact that anyone would have the nerve to say this out loud is. The NYT:
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.

But the report concluded that the problem of bullying among children, both online and offline, poses a far more serious challenge than the sexual solicitation of minors by adults. Report Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown

(Forty-nine states -- don't you wonder which state's Attorney General did not back this study?)

I know there are readers of this blog who have Facebook accounts and use them regularly. I have heard there is even a TeachTheFacts Facebook page, not that I'd know how to find it. I did recently spend some time putting together a MySpace page for the band I'm in. Naturally, I needed to ask my kids how to do it. I don't know why MySpace is the standard for musicians, but every band has to have one. When you go to book a gig now, the club owner says, "Leave me your MySpace, I'll get back to you."

The kids have gone through different phases. There was one, maybe seven or eight years ago, where you posted your photograph and people commented on you. That one made me nervous, of course the kids were little then. Do you remember when every kid had a Xanga site? Now my big kids have their Facebook pages and I don't even know what they're called. I've looked at them a couple of times over the years, when somebody's left a computer logged in, and I don't see anything that worries me. Kids talking slang, being cool, whatever. I'm glad they're happy.
“This shows that social networks are not these horribly bad neighborhoods on the Internet,” said John Cardillo, chief executive of Sentinel Tech Holding, which maintains a sex offender database and was part of the task force. “Social networks are very much like real-world communities that are comprised mostly of good people who are there for the right reasons.”

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.

You know what's going to happen. Somebody's going to have a horrible story to tell, someone was abducted or molested or disappeared because of a social networking site, and that one story will outweigh the experiences of tens of millions of people.

A few years ago a friend from France visited, and wanted to rent a car. We took him to Enterprise and he looked at the cars. The main thing he wanted (besides manual transmission) was a car that was big enough to pick up hitchhikers. What could we say? Maurice, here in America we're afraid of hitchhikers. People don't pick up hitchhikers because anybody who would hitchhike would be an insane psychokiller, and people don't hitchhike because only an insane psychokiller would give you a ride. We're afraid of each other, try explaining that to a foreigner sometime.

It's just how we are. This article says the coolest thing: "Social networks are very much like real-world communities that are comprised mostly of good people who are there for the right reasons." You forget, most people in the world are good people. You don't have to assume that everybody who looks at a building is a terrorist. Your kids can socialize on the Internet just like we used to do on the playground before it was too dangerous to let them out of our sight, most likely nothing's going to happen to them.

It seems like such a brave statement. The sky's not falling! The sky's not falling!
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.

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.”

In what social networks may view as something of an exoneration after years of pressure from law enforcement, the report said sites like MySpace and Facebook “do not appear to have increased the overall risk of solicitation.”

Children are solicited every day. Listen, in September, 2008, according to Nielsen, there were 39,003,000 Facebook users. Plural children are solicited every day. I'm sorry, schoolyards are dangerous, church is dangerous, children are solicited every day everywhere. I'll never understand what thrill certain people get from scaring everybody.
Attorneys general like Mr. Blumenthal and Roy Cooper of North Carolina publicly accused the social networks of facilitating the activities of pedophiles and pushed them to adopt measures to protect their youngest users. Citing studies that showed tens of thousands of convicted sex offenders were using MySpace, they pressured the networks to purge those people from their membership databases.

The attorneys general also charged the task force with evaluating technologies that might play a role in enhancing safety for children online. An advisory board composed of academic computer scientists and forensics experts was created within the task force to look at technologies and ask companies in the industry to submit their child-protection systems.

Among the systems the technology board looked at included age verification technologies that try to authenticate the identities and ages of children and prevent adults from contacting them. But the board concluded that such systems “do not appear to offer substantial help in protecting minors from sexual solicitation.”

Keep an eye on your kids. Talk to them about what they're doing. Ask them if there are weird people on the Internet, and don't freak out when they tell you a story about it. Generally, they've figured out how to deal with the creeps. They know who their friends are. It's no different from what you and I did when we were young, except it's on the Internet now. Lighten up, let them live.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Jim. I agree on almost everything. Most kids wouldn't friend a random adult on Facebook and they're very wary of "stalkers". As you say, they're more interested in their friends than strangers. It's just like the non-electronic world.

Of course, it's not good for the site if I agree with everything so I've scoured the post and found something to quibble with:

"You forget, most people in the world are good people."

Come on, Kennedy. Have you never studied history?

January 16, 2009 8:51 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

Anon, history represents the lives of millions with the face of one. Those who struggle for power are not like the rest of us, but they get their names in the history books while the good people are forgotten. Example: the American people have never been as black-hearted as our leaders over the past eight years.


January 16, 2009 9:11 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home