Social Networking Risks: The Myths and Realities

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School recently announced that it will head a newly formed Internet Safety Technical Task Force. The Task Force, comprised of leading Internet businesses and organizations, will focus on identifying effective online safety tools and technologies that can be used by many companies across multiple platforms.

An open letter to the members of this Task Force.

My 14 YO daughter would welcome the opportunity explain to you the basic precautions for using MySpace in a safe manner. She will help you register correctly and establish preferences so that only the people you accept as friends can see your profile. She will advise you to accept friendship requests only from people you know or people who your friends know in person – and if someone behaves rudely, you should terminate the friendship link. She can show you how to file a complaint, although she has never had to do so. She will tell you to never to provide a phone number online or address online. She will provide you with guidance on the kinds of material and images that are safe to post and those that are inappropriate or unsafe.

My daughter feels perfectly safe on MySpace. And as her mother, I agree. Apparently my daughter and I are not alone. A recent Pew Internet and American Life study revealed that 55% of U.S. teens have established accounts on social networking sites. Quite obviously, the majority of U.S. teens do not perceive these sites to present dangers, and the majority of parents agree.

It is appropriate that MySpace continues to explore and implement new safety measures. It is helpful that this nation’s Attorneys General have decided to stop attacking MySpace in the press and will work together to find additional solutions to the safety concerns. But I respectfully suggest this Task Force consider the following questions regarding the effectiveness of their recommended “techie fixes:”

Current fear-mongering about online predators is not grounded in research. The Crimes Against Children Research Center just released a report that addresses the myths and realities about these situations. This is not new research. This is the research that I have relied on for years to guide my understanding. But this recent report is an incredibly excellent review of the current state of our knowledge.
The fear mongering about online sexual predators is  getting in the way of healthy teen/adult communications and disuading teens from reporting online concerns – because they are quite sure that adults will overreact, not know what to do, or make matters worse.

Internet sex offenders do not target young children by posing as another youth.
They to not track young people through personal information they post online, then abduct and rape them. They are adults who target teens and seduce victims into sexual relationships. The teens see these relationships as romances or sexual adventures. The majority of the offenders are charged with statutory (non-forcible) rape. Teens meet with these men knowing they are adults and intending to engage in sex.

Young people who are most vulnerable to online sex offenders have a history of sexual, physical abuse, and/or family problems and tendencies to take risks both on- and offline. Boys who are gay or questioning are also at risk.

The use of social networking sites does not appear to increase risk. Online interactions that do increase risk include talking online about sex with unknown people and posting sexually suggestive material. Social networking sites, which allow young people to control who has access to their personal information and limit communications to friends are far safer than chat rooms.

Current educational efforts addressing online predators are likely ineffective, including:

  • Discouraging children from giving out or posting personal information in the context of predator warnings. This guidance is too simplistic for the myriad of ways in which young people are using the Internet.
  • Warning about the dangers of online strangers and deception. Stranger danger warnings are not effective. Most strangers are safe. Predators are not deceptive.
  • Encouraging parents to monitor their children and children to report concerns to parents. While we do need to encourage parents to be more attentive to what their children are doing online and educate them about these concerns, these efforts will not reach the most “at risk” teens because one major reason they are at risk is lack of parent involvement.

Let’s consider the “techie fixes that have been proposed:

Establish an email registry, where parents can submit the email addresses of their children and no one would be able to register on a social networking site with this address. Are the AGs aware that it would take a teen less than a minute to create another email address? How would this registry be more effective than keeping the computer in a public area, checking over their child’s shoulder, and looking at the history file? How will the proposed service ensure the security of the vast database of personal information about children and that the person who registers an address is the custodial parent of the person whose address has been submitted? How will this registry help those young people who are at greatest risk – those who do not have involved parents?

Establish age verification. Age verification can be done for adults – who have identification that is independently verifiable, credit cards and driver’s licenses. But no such uniform identification system exists for minors. Would such a system be created? How would this be implemented, how much would this cost, and who would bear the cost? What about concerns of identity theft?

Have parents establish their identity and then provide permission for their child to register. How could the web sites effectively establish which adult has custodial authority over any particular child? Will parents be required to go to their local court to establish that they do indeed have parental authority over a certain child?

Other questions. What would prevent U.S. teens from registering on these sites from a foreign hub? What would the AGs propose to do about the millions of teens who already are registered? The evidence will show that none of these proposed “techie fixes” has a chance of working effectively.

What will work?

  • Teens must understand the concerns about romantic relationships with adults and the dynamics of Internet-initiated sex crimes, so they can learn not to place themselves at risk and to recognize if they have received contact from a potential predator.
  • To better reach the more “at risk” teens, we need to encourage savvy teens to talk with their friends about their online choices and report to an adult if they believe that a friend is in danger or making bad choices.
  • We must find better ways to address needs of “at risk” teens. This will require adopting effective risk prevention approaches used for other areas of youth risk.

I end with a quote from Megatrends

When we fall into the trap of believing or, more accurately, hoping that technology will solve all of our problems, we are actually abdicating the high touch of personal responsibility. … In our minds at least, technology is always on the verge of liberating us from personal discipline and responsibility. Only it never does and never will. The more technology around us, the more the need for human touch.

Naisbitt, J., Megatrends: Ten new directions transforming our lives, New York, N.Y. Warner Books, 1984.


2 responses to “Social Networking Risks: The Myths and Realities

  1. It is extremely urgent to bring these issues to the forefront, the MegaTrends quote is also spot on. The urban legends, misconceptions and common perceptions of social networks, preditors and teens is problematic. But then again, with that truth said, also there are issues with identity theft, phishing and other things online. For instance, a recent story where teens on their blogs were all discussing a retreat trip sponsored in part by the school and which families were going away, dates, times, everything – all those houses were robbed, and it was not by anyone connected in anyway with the school itself.

    Thus, personal information can be your friend and help make friendly social connections to satisfy your innate needs, but that personal information can be turned against you as well, so, personal responsibility, common sense and a little extra knowledge WILL go a long way! Great work here. – Lance

    Nancy’s note: I fully agree with you on the concerns about posting personal information. One problem is that the guidance to young people about posting personal information is frequently in the context of predator risk. Since many have no inclination to go and meet up with a creep to have sex, they do think think about the other potential risks.

  2. Nancy you rose the good point. I think we should give it a serious thought and should define some measures to educate teenagers on these issues.

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