There's a war of words brewing, with several Internet safety organizations, researchers, and social-networking companies on one side and some state attorneys general on the other.
Earlier this month, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, run out of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, issued a report stating that Internet predator danger to kids is not as high as some have claimed. The report was immediately criticized by a number of attorneys general including Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania. And on Monday, an Internet safety organization in Oregon published a study that claims that data from press releases on Corbett's own Web site fail to back up his claims about Internet dangers.
The new study (PDF), from the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use (CSRIU), challenges recent assertions by several state attorneys general that young people are at significant risk from online predators on social-networking sites. It specifically analyzes press releases from the Pennsylvania attorney general about cases in the Keystone State. Attorneys general from Connecticut, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania criticized the task force report, arguing that it understated the problem of online predators in social-network services such as MySpace and Facebook.
Disclosure: I served as a member of the Berkman Task Force, representing ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization I co-founded. ConnectSafely receives financial support from MySpace, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, AOL, and other Internet and social-networking companies.
The task force report stated that the likelihood of youth being harmed by online predators on social-networking sites is sometimes exaggerated by media, law enforcement, and politicians, especially compared to dangers such as cyberbullying that kids face from other kids. It was based on analysis from all available refereed research studies conducted in the United States during the past nine years. The task force was created as a result of an agreement between 49 state attorneys general and MySpace.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper told The Wall Street Journal that he believed the "research was outdated and doesn't take into account the explosion of social-networking sites." Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told the Journal "the report may be read as downplaying the threat of predators." In a letter, South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster said the report's findings were "as disturbing as they are wrong," adding that "the conclusions in this report create a troubling false sense of security on the issue of child Internet safety."
In a press release, Pennsylvania AG Tom Corbett called the report "incredibly misleading" and said it "significantly lessens the progress we have made in implementing safety techniques for children using the Internet." "The threat is real," he added, saying, "In the last four years, my office has arrested 183 predators, all of whom have used the Internet for the purpose of contacting minors to engage in sexual activity." He also said that "outdated statistics and academic projections are of little comfort to the minors who have been sexually victimized by online predators."
The arrest of 183 Pennsylvania Internet predators in the past four years is indeed troubling, but the CSRIU study analyzed reports about those cases and concluded that "only eight incidents involved actual teen victims with whom the Internet was used to form a relationship." Five of the cases lead to inappropriate contact and in four of the incidents the teen or parents reported the contact.
One hundred sixty-six of the arrests were based on sting operations where the alleged predator contacted an undercover police officer posing, in most cases, as a 12- to 14-year-old girl. Others were for possession of child pornography. Perhaps most significant in terms of the danger of social-networking sites, according to study author CSRIU Executive Director Nancy Willard is that "despite the fact that the Pennsylvania child predator unit posted fake teen profiles on MySpace for over two years, no successful stings originated through MySpace."
Willard said "the overwhelming majority of the stings occurred in chat rooms, with the others initiated through instant messaging." Chat rooms and instant-messaging services have long been considered the most high-risk online places for teens. Chat rooms are generally unsupervised; communication takes place in real time, and some chat rooms are set up and used primarily for the purpose of meeting potential sexual partners.
The CSRIU study also found that "there were only 12 reports of predators being deceptive about their age," which is consistent with the research cited by the Task Force.
The only connections between the predators and social networks, according to Willard, was one incident involving an actual teen victim where communications took place on MySpace and another case in which a police officer who was arrested for sexual abuse of many teens with whom he had interacted in the line of duty through his MySpace account. Willard said that "in five cases the predators reportedly looked at the fake teen's MySpace profile or suggested that the agent look at their profile."
One predator in a sting provided the agent with a link to his Facebook page and, "in five of the stings that took place in a chat room, reference was made to the fact that the predator had either looked at the teen's MySpace account or suggested the teen look at his profile," said the CSRIU study. But, again, the initial contact was made in a chat room, not on MySpace or Facebook.
Kevin Harley, spokesperson for Attorney General Corbett, said, "We are a pre-emptive investigative unit. What we have done is capture predators who are soliciting before they ever meet a real adolescent or commit the act the first time." He said that cases where victims are identified are typically turned over to local police and prosecutors and not handled by the state Attorney General. Harley said that the Internet Safety Technical Task Force "totally minimized the existence of a problem."
To put this issue into context, in April 2008, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape reported (PDF) that last year the state's rape crisis centers and sexual assault programs provided services to 9,934 children who were sexually abused.
For more perspective on this issue, see Anne Collier's post in NetFamilyNews.org
(edited at 10:40 PM PT 1/29/09 to add link to Collier post)