Report: Children at greater risk from peer harassment than from adult solicitation

Elizabeth's picture

Thanks to Viviane for alerting me to a NYT article I'd missed on Tuesday. It announces the release of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force's Final Report to the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking of State Attorneys General of the United States.

The task force was made of up of Internet service providers, social networking companies, academics, non-profit child and family safety advocate organizations and was formed in response to a call from state attorney generals for research and policy direction that would help keep kids safer online.

Interestingly the report finds that the greatest threats to kids come from their own peers and that the threat of sexual solicitation by adults, while worrisome and to be taken seriously, is not as great as one would guess based on the media fear-mongering of shows like "To Catch A Predator."

Here are some excerpts from the report's Executive Summary (PDF) :

  • Sexual predation on minors by adults, both online and offline, remains a concern. Sexual predation in all its forms, including when it involves statutory rape, is an abhorrent crime. Much of the research based on law-enforcement cases involving Internet-related child exploitation predated the rise of social networks. This research found that cases typically involved post-pubescent youth who were aware that they were meeting an adult male for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity. The Task Force notes that more research specifically needs to be done concerning the activities of sex offenders in social network sites and other online environments, and encourages law enforcement to work with researchers to make more data available for this purpose. Youth report sexual solicitation of minors by minors more frequently, but these incidents, too, are understudied, underreported to law enforcement, and not part of most conversations about online safety.
  • Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline.
  • The Internet increases the availability of harmful, problematic and illegal content, but does not always increase minors’ exposure. Unwanted exposure to pornography does occur online, but those most likely to be exposed are those seeking it out, such as older male minors. Most research focuses on adult pornography and violent content, but there are also concerns about other content, including child pornography and the violent, pornographic, and other problematic content that youth themselves generate.
  • The risk profile for the use of different genres of social media depends on the type of risk, common uses by minors, and the psychosocial makeup of minors who use them. Social network sites are not the most common space for solicitation and unwanted exposure to problematic content, but are frequently used in peer-to-peer harassment, most likely because they are broadly adopted by minors and are used primarily to reinforce pre-existing social relations.
  • Minors are not equally at risk online. Those who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives. The psychosocial makeup of and family dynamics surrounding particular minors are better predictors of risk than the use of specific media or technologies.
  • Although much is known about these issues, many areas still require further research. For example, too little is known about the interplay among risks and the role that minors themselves play in contributing to unsafe environments.

I encourage you to read the whole Executive Summary here (PDF)

In addition there are statements by the participating organizations, and those are interesting also. For example, the Family Online Safety Institute, parent organization of the ICRA (Internet Content Rating Association) which provides site labels to web sites that want to help users filter out content they might not want to see, has this to say about the report's findings:

I believe that Task Force carefully considered the problem posed to it, but also explored what existing and emerging research was saying about children and young teens actual experiences online. In this way, the Task Force moved the discussion from one that has been informed by fear and media overstatement, to descriptions of how kids are using the Internet. (Statements by participating organizations can be found here - PDF)

Unfortunately some were disappointed by the study's findings. Connecticut Attorney General Blumenthal was quoted in the New York Times continuing to insist that research hides, rather than reveals social facts:

Not everyone was happy with the conclusions. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general, who has forcefully pursued the issue and helped to create the task force, said he disagreed with the report. Mr. Blumenthal said it “downplayed the predator threat,” relied on outdated research and failed to provide a specific plan for improving the safety of social networking.

“Children are solicited every day online,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “Some fall prey, and the results are tragic. That harsh reality defies the statistical academic research underlying the report.”

The politics of fear and moral panic does not keep children safe. Recognizing the real risks to kids will help keep them safer. Having sane, rational discussions about real risks will help keep them safer. Those strategies are more difficult and not as exciting, nor do they generate such TV ratings or rally turn-outs, but they are undoubtedly more effective.

Share/Save