As many as 13% of children receive sexual solicitations online, but very few are from adults over age 21, according to a report released Tuesday by a Harvard University task force.
The findings led the task force to conclude that parents may worry too much about their children’s exposure to adult sexual predators, and too little about how to teach kids to resist advances from other kids or the type of seductions that could lead to statutory rape.
In all, the task force said, predatory incidents occur about as often online as in the real world -- and the same factors that put kids at risk of being abused in their neighborhoods are at work online.
The report was quickly criticized by those who said that it downplayed the risk of predators.
Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal, who helped set up the task force, said the study relied on “outdated and inadequate” research.
But Parry Aftab, a member of the task force and executive director of WiredSafety.org, an Internet safety organization based in New York, said parents should be less fearful.
The report by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force said the percentage of kids who had received sexual solicitations online fell from 19% in 2000 to 13% in 2006, the latest year for which statistics were available. A 2008 study cited by the task force reported that 14% of Los Angeles teenagers who used MySpace said they had gotten unwanted messages with sexual innuendoes or links. Of those sexual advances, 4% to 9% came from adults older than 21, the report estimated. The majority came from other kids or young adults.
“Of particular concern are the sexual solicitations between minors and the frequency with which online-initiated sexual contact resembles statutory rape rather than other models of abuse,” the task force noted.
Although fear of adult sexual predators may be overstated, cyber-bullying was probably understated, the task force concluded.
“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,” the report said.
The potential hazards of cyber-bullying were highlighted in 2006 when a Missouri teenager committed suicide after receiving messages on MySpace from the mother of a schoolmate posing as a teenage boy saying, “The world would be a better place without you.” The mother, Lori Drew, was acquitted in November by a federal jury in Los Angeles of felony charges but convicted of three misdemeanors for setting up a bogus MySpace account.
The report, written by researchers at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, met with some criticism. “The report is a step forward, but it has to be followed by other steps,” said Blumenthal, who faulted the task force for not providing specific recommendations on improving online safety for children.
Aftab echoed the concern, saying that much of the report’s conclusions are not groundbreaking.
“I would have liked the report to be more specific on concrete tools for schools and parents,” Aftab said. “It’s sort of vague. It needs one more step, which is, now what?”
Among the report’s more useful conclusions, Aftab said, is that the factors that put kids at risk online are often the same factors that put them at risk in the real world, including drug abuse, physical or mental abuse, depression or poor relationships with their parents. That means some of the same tools for tackling real-world issues could also be effective in protecting kids from online abuse, she said.
“It’s never about technology,” Aftab said. “It’s all about communication. . . . If they trust you, they’re more likely to tell you about what they’re doing online. They know more about technology, we know more about life. We’ve got to learn to connect the two.”
The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.