Internet fear-mongering is undermining our ability to effectively address the risks to young people online. In their zeal to address these concerns, some individuals and organizations are exaggerating the problem. They present poorly documented statements and misleading claims. Here is one example:
“One in seven young people has been sexually solicited online.”
This statement is accurate, but it is really necessary to read the fine print of the study. One of seven young people has not been solicited online by a dangerous adult sexual predator, which is what most people think when they see this statement.
The source of this statement is a 2006 study conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC). CACRC asked about a range of online concerns, including what was essentially sexual harassment – unwanted sexual communications. Yes, some teens had been sexually harassed online. The vast majority of the reported sexual harassment came from those presenting themselves as other teens or young adults. Only 9% of the comments came from people presenting themselves as over 25. The vast majority of young people reported that they effectively dealt with the situation. Many did not tell an adult because, according to them, the incident was “not serious enough.”
A 2002 study by the American Association of University Women found that four of five students had been sexually harassed at high school. But we are not seeing calls to block teens from attending school.
Some teens and adults are engaging in or receiving online sexual harassment. Some are seeking sexual partners online. So we have to teach young people how to avoid getting into situations where this might occur and what to do if it does and what the dangers are related to online relationships leading to sex. More on this below.
The CACRC study did reveal a pattern of behavior that raises significant concerns. The study asked about “aggressive sexual solicitations” – solicitations where the “solicitor” sought to meet the youth in “real life.” Sixteen percent (16%) of the aggressive solicitations were made by females – 64% of whom were under the age of 18.
These are the youth who are at a much higher risk. They are intentionally seeking relationships that are dangerous and unhealthy. We need much more comprehensive solutions to address the concerns of these young people.
Here is another common statement:
“Online predators are tracking down young people based on the personal information they have posted online, abducting them and raping them.”
Another myth is that online predators are tracking young people down based on information they provide online, like the name of their school or sports team, and then abducting them. I will not say “never,” but I have been unable to find any actual reported incident where this has occurred. Nor have other professionals with whom I communicate, including researchers who focus on online sexual abuse and the safety directors of popular teen sites.
A 2002 study by CACRC reviewed actual online predation incidents resulting in arrest. The young people were between the ages of 13 and 15, 75% girls and 25% boys. There was no evidence of tracking or deception. These young people met with the predators knowing they were adult men and that they were going to engage in sex.
The young people who are most at risk online are those who are emotionally vulnerable and “looking for love” or those who are interested in meeting people to engage in sex. These are “at risk” youth. Our interventions must address the fact that these young people are placing themselves at risk.
Young people are being warned not to communicate with online strangers. They are not going to pay attention. Younger children are “waddling” around on Club Penguin safely talking with online strangers. Once a teen has exchanged friendly messages with someone not known in person, they generally consider this person to be a “friend,” not a stranger. Prevention specialists know that stranger danger warnings are ineffective.
We must teach young people how to negotiate the Internet safely, knowing they will be interacting with “strangers” and knowing that sometimes they may be harassed and some strangers may present danger. They must know what kinds of places are the least safe – like chat rooms. They must know how to use privacy protection features of social networking sites and instant messaging. They must know the special concerns related to posting images or information that could appear attractive to someone “cruising” the Internet looking for sexual partners. They must know how to deal with sexual harassment by filing a complaint and blocking or ignoring the person.
They must also recognize the signs of dangerous stranger – who generally will not try to initiate communications by sending “unwanted communications.” They must watch out for people who send overly-friendly messages, are excessively complementary, offer gifts or opportunities, want to establish a “special relationship,” ask for a sexy picture, or interfere with relationships with friends or family. These are the indicators of manipulation efforts.
Young “digital natives” are dismissing fear-based Internet safety guidance because they perceive that adults fear what they do not understand. As a result of this fear-mongering, they may be less inclined to report serious concerns to adults, even when they should. They have reason to fear that adults will overreact. Increasing their disinclination to report is a serious and damaging consequence of the irresponsible fear-mongering.
There are risks to young people online, just as in the real world. Younger children should be protected in safe online places and communications. Teens must gain the knowledge, skills, and values to independently make safe and responsible choices online. And parents must remain engaged.