MySpace and 49 of the state Attorneys General announced today that they they had reached agreement on a broad set of guidelines designed to protect children on MySpace and other social networking sites. Under this agreement, MySpace will implement some additional safety provisions and a working group will be established to further investigate additional technical protections.
In part, this agreement is good news for MySpace. Some attorneys general have been routinely denigrating MySpace and calling upon MySpace and other social networking sites to implement age verification technologies to protect young people against online sexual predators. Problem is that since there are no independent government or business systems to verify the identity and age of minors, age verification on social networking sites is a pipe dream. Actually, it is worse than that: Technical protections invariably create false security that young people are actually protected.
So where is the good news? Well, the good news is that the attorneys general are now going to be working with MySpace and other social networking sites rather than constantly complaining or threatening litigation. And maybe, we can hope, they will start looking at the actual research and develop more comprehensive approaches to more effectively address the risks.
Based on this agreement, MySpace will reportedly create a system that will allow parents to submit their children’s email addresses to MySpace to disallow them from creating a profile. (Duh? So what is to prevent a child whose parent has done this from going to a friend’s computer, creating another web-based email address, and using this address to register? And if a parent does not want their child to engage in social networking, why can’t they simply use time limiting software and look over their child’s shoulder to find out what he or she is doing online, or check the history file?) MySpace will make the privacy settings the default for 16 and 17 year olds, set up a high school “region,” and respond more rapidly to complaints about inappropriate content. These are all good ideas.
An Online Safety Task Force will be created to explore new technologies that can help make users more safe and secure, including age verification.
So what is missing? The problem is that none of these measures will effectively address the underlying concern – that some young people are becoming sexually involved with adults through online interactions. There are many misperceptions about this area of online risk and the impact of social networking.
You have probably seen this statement: “1 in 7 young people have been sexually solicited online.” This figure comes from a 2006 study from the Crimes Against Children Research Center. The figure is correct. But you have to look at the details of the study. The researchers asked about: �”situations where someone on the Internet attempted to get them to talk about sex when they did not want to or asked them unwanted sexual questions about themselves.” Essentially this is sexual harassment. Further, it is very unclear how a young person who receives an “unwanted” sexual message is at any risk of getting into a sexual interaction with that person.
Most of the sexual harassment came from other teens – 43% from other teens, 30% from people 18 to 24, 9% from people over 25, remainder age unknown. In response to these situations, 26% told a friend or sibling, 21% told an adult, 56% did not tell anyone, 64% of whom said they did not tell because it was “not serious.” These contacts occurred 37% in chat rooms and 40% through instant messaging. The researchers did not ask about social networking sites – which in my opinion are far safer than chat rooms.
So let’s get to the serious data: The researchers also asked about “aggressive solicitations” which were situations where the “solicitor” sought to meet. In these situations, 15% of the solicitations came from adults over the age of 25. But 16% came from females, 64% of whom were under the age of 18. Clearly, there is a problem that some teen girls are aggressively seeking sexual interactions online.
A 2003 study by the Crimes Against Research Center, that investigated actual incidents that led to arrest, found that the victims were 13 to 15 years old, 75% girls and 25% boys. Evidence of deception was rare. The teens met willingly, knowing they were interacting with an adult and would be engaging in sex. Half of the young people indicated they were in love with or highly attracted to the adult. The other half were apparently simply met to engage in sex. These situations were statutory rape, not forcible rape.
What we must also understand is that sexual predators are not always adults and not always strangers. Sometimes teens are engaging in online sexual predation of other teens. Young people are at far higher risk of sexual predation from people in their family and community – who may use Internet communications for grooming and control.
Who appears to be most at risk? Teens who are emotionally vulnerable and are exploring sexual issues online, including sexual orientation, and teens who are interested. Interested teens are posting sexually provocative images, using sexually inviting usernames, and going to places where people discuss sex and arrange for sexual “hook-ups.” These are vulnerable and at risk teens to begin with. They are definitely at risk online. Unfortunately, they are also most likely to come from families where the parents are not sufficiently involved with their children. So “parental control” technologies are highly unlikely to provide any protection for these young people.
The attorneys general are apparently very concerned about under-age young people registering on MySpace. I am concerned about this also – my perspective is that it is better that they wait until they are older. But in the vast majority of these situations, middle and sometimes even elementary students are registering on MySpace, or other similar sites, with their parent’s permission. I think the safety features that these sites have implemented, that allow users to restrict access to their personal information and ability to communicate, has created a situation where parents believe that their children are safe on these sites. As long as their children are very careful about who they add as friends, they likely are safe. As much as the attorneys general want people to think that social networking sites are dangerous – many parents and teens (and children) think otherwise.
Now please understand that I am a little bit more than a little concerned that our nation’s attorneys general think that age verification technologies and technologies that create the illusion for parents that they have prevented their child from engaging in social networking are going to be effective in addressing the very real concern of online sexual predation.
The bottom line is that it is not possible to create effective legal or technology “fixes” to substitute for involved parenting. The young people whose parents are not sufficiently and effectively involved will always be at higher risk. And therefore, we need to develop effective risk prevention approaches. And we need to help all young people, and their parents, learn how to limit the potential that they will attract dangerous attention, to recognize if someone is trying to manipulate them into agreeing to a sexual relationship, and what to do if this is happening.