Correction: This posting originally misstated the Internet youth growth rate and population. Internet usage among youth grew from 73 percent in 2000 to 93 percent in 2006.
The news from a new online predator study is mostly good. Researchers from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) found only a modest increase in the number of adults arrested for solicitation of actual minors, which could be accounted for by the growth in the number of youth Internet users.
In 2006 there were 615 arrests for soliciting a real child, compared with 508 in 2000 and during that interval the percentage of young people using the Internet grew from 73 percent to 93 percent. The study defined young people as ages 17 and below. (To put that into some kind of perspective, there were more than 25 million 12- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. in 2006 based on U.S. Census Bureau data as reported on ChildStats.gov.)
The time span covered by this new study coincides with the advent of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, which weren't around in 2000. And considering the numbers, it should help dispel the hysteria about the so-called predator dangers on social-networking sites.
The study did reveal a very significant number of sting operation arrests in which the offender approached an undercover police officer posing as a minor. That's a crime and, says CCRC Director David Finkelhor, these sting operations may have played a major role in helping to reduce the number of actual victims by taking predators off the street and deterring others from even trying.
The study found that during 2006, 87 percent of the arrests involved solicitation of undercover cops, and 13 percent of the cases involved actual minors. To put this into perspective, online predator arrests that year accounted for only 1 percent of all arrests for sex crimes against children.
Most victims were adolescents (not young children) and only 5 percent of the crimes involved violence. "They don't involve offenders who troll the net and harvest children's information from blogs or social networking sites and then lure them into meetings where they abduct them," Finkelhor said in a podcast interview. "These are offenders who start up conversations, often times acknowledge being an adult and often times acknowledge that they're interested in sex and looking for sexual partners."
These predators, said Finkelhor, "prey on kids who are vulnerable to the flattery and the excitement they offer and these kids go to meet these adults knowing they are interested in sex. More often than not they meet them on more than one occasion."
What this and previous studies suggest is that there are some kids who take extraordinary risk but that most kids are savvy enough to avoid getting into conversations with adult predators.
This study should have broad implications for policy makers and Internet safety educators. For example, some state attorneys general have called for age verification to control teenage access to social-networking sites, yet the data suggest that social networking has not put kids at any increased risk.
And Internet educators, said Finkelhor, need to warn young people about "very risky things they can do in their adolescent naivety and interest in exploring the world" such as "talking to people online about sexual matters, going to sexually oriented kinds of sites, going to meet someone who is much older for an encounter that they know involves sex." You'll find more tips at ConnectSafely.org.
Disclosure: I am co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from several Internet and social networking companies including MySpace and Facebook. I also served as a member of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force and am the founder of SafeKids.com.
Listen to Larry's interview with CRCC director David Finkelhor