To Catch a Predator: Task Force Downplays Online Threats

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A report released on Jan. 14 by the multi-organizational Internet Safety Technical Task Force, whose formation was spearheaded by MySpace Inc., shows a surprisingly benevolent picture of the online security and privacy threats faced by children. However, the report’s conclusion that “bullying among children, both online and offline, poses a far more serious threat” than the sexual solicitation of children online is drawing some sharp criticism from people throughout the country.
The sharpest assessment of the report came from South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, who attacked the report for creating a “false sense of security” about online child safety. In an open letter addressed to the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), which commissioned the report early last year as part of a deal with MySpace, McMaster stated that the task force findings are “as disturbing as they are wrong.”
Based on research done at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the report at the center of all this criticism is entitled “Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies.” In the report, representatives from companies such as Google, Microsoft, AOL, Facebook, MySpace and several child-safety and public advocacy organizations concluded that despite popular perceptions, the biggest risks that teenagers and children face on the Internet are cyber-bullying and online harassment, not sexual predators. The report also stated that most threats to children on social networking Web sites and the Internet do not come from adult predators but from their teenage peers.
Although the online sexual solicitation of minors by adults remains a concern, according to the task force’s report, it happens less often than one would assume. The report also claims that the number of cases reported to law enforcement officials in which online contact between “adults and minors leads to physical sexual encounters is surprisingly small.” In addition, the report states that such situations typically involve “teenage youth” who are often either aware beforehand or should already know that they are most likely dealing with an adult.
John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based think tank that took part in producing the report, said that the most important information that was gathered from the report was that despite the “hype and hysteria” among the general public, online risks to children are sometimes less “serious and more nuanced than typically assumed.”
“No one is saying the online environment is risk-free. But in the end, the research shows that social networking environments are generally safe for kids and that the ones at risk online are the ones who are at risk offline,” Morris said.
Although the NAAG report concluded that online bullying is the only real harm children face, it is not in societies and parents best interest to assume that the Internet and social networking is suddenly a safe environment for kids. Especially when one considers that the report’s conclusion is at odds with the data collected by various states regarding the subject of Internet child safety.
For example, in South Carolina, Internet predators pose a clear and present danger. A task force of 43 state and local law enforcement agencies has, as of 2004, made 147 arrests for online child solicitation. In addition, due to technological advancements, including the growing popularity of mobile phones, handheld devices, video gaming systems and online networking sites, more and more children are in contact with sexual predators every day.
Therefore, despite the Internet Safety Technical Task Force’s conclusion that online bullying has increased over the past couple of years, the online sexual solicitation of children by adults remains the number one threat and should remain the number one concern for children using the Internet today.

Natalie Goudarzian is a third-year international studies major. She can be reached at ngoudarz@uci.edu.

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