My pal, my bully

Since emerging from the primordial ooze, parents have wrung their evolving appendages over ways to shield their offspring from hungry predators, lurking maniacs and strangers from without.

Again and again, they've learned, the threat to their children lies uncomfortably closer to home: Lion fathers would sooner eat their unprotected young than hunt wilier quarry; children pictured on milk cartons were more likely to have been snatched from home by an embattled parent than by a stranger; day-care providers were less intent on molesting a child in their care than was, say, a live-in partner, Uncle Wilbur or a trusted family friend.

It was a lesson brought home again earlier this month, when parents learned that the roughly six in 10 adolescents who socialize on the Internet have relatively little to fear from the faceless pervert lurking in the anonymity of cyberspace.

In an authoritative report almost a year in the making, a Harvard University-led task force on Internet safety, ordered by the nation's attorneys general and meant to expose the full extent of the danger, found instead that kids trading gossip, photos and plans on social networking sites such as MySpace are relatively safe from adults cruising online for sex with minors.

The report, released Jan. 13, counters political calls to protective action with a generally upbeat look at the effectiveness of measures developed by Internet companies to protect kids from predatory strangers. And it douses parental fretting with research showing that few kids have been subject to such unwanted advances when socializing on sites aimed at the youth market.

Those findings come on the heels of several studies showing that online social networking appears to be a perfectly benign practice for the vast majority of kids, even for those most consumed by the pastime. After a steady diet of warnings that their children's growing Internet use is a likely cause of academic failure, attention disorders and obesity, a parent could be forgiven for welcoming the news with an audible sigh of relief.

Those parents might want to read to the report's end, however. The perpetrators of psychological wounds and the stalkers who would steal their kids' innocence are probably not strangers, the study reported; more likely, they are the spiteful, sulking or silly friends the kids hang out with. And their own offspring may play a significant role in the misbehavior too.

Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, "are the most frequent threats that minors face," the report says. And though kids concede that minors routinely proposition other minors for sex on these sites, such incidents "are understudied, underreported to law enforcement, and are not part of most conversations about online safety," it adds.

"It's an important message for parents," says Katherine C. Cowan, communications director for the National Assn. of School Psychologists and, with four kids ages 17 to 24, a "grizzled veteran" of parenting teens. "Sure, there are crazy sexual predators out there. But the most common problem is kids being mean to each other, and 13-year-old girls posting naked pictures of themselves."

The highly publicized suicide of a Missouri teenager after a campaign of cyber-bullying has helped solidify parents' perceptions that malicious adults, not their own children, are the Internet's main threat. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself after a neighborhood parent posed as a 16-year-old boy on MySpace, befriended and flattered Megan for six weeks and then, just as suddenly, turned on her, calling her mean. Before Megan's online romantic interest was exposed as an adult neighbor four houses down -- the mother of a childhood friend -- others joined in, calling Megan "fat" and a "whore."

The message that kids might be their own worst enemies on the Internet certainly resonates with Anthony E. Wolf, a practicing clinical psychologist in Massachusetts and author of "Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Cheryl and Me to the Mall?"

"What are the big problems in cyberspace?" he asks. "One definitely is the stuff that kids do to and with each other. Yes, there's cyber-bullying, but a pretty surprisingly high percentage of kids on the Internet are talking about drugs, sex and drinking in ways that are semi-innocent and not so innocent at all."

A survey conducted by USC Annenberg School's Center for the Digital Future found that in 2006, 63% of parents surveyed believed there were "quite a few" sexual predators on MySpace. In Los Angeles, parental fear appeared to have gained further traction: In a 2006 survey of L.A.-area parents by Cal State Dominguez Hills professor Larry D. Rosen, 83% reported they were concerned about sexual predators on the Internet. The same study found that 15% of kids using social networking sites reported that they'd been contacted by strangers online, and that 92% of those took appropriate steps in response.

More than perhaps any backyard conversations, "Dateline NBC's" widely seen series "To Catch a Predator" has done much to stoke parents' concerns. In it, a female decoy, by all appearances a young teen, responds to advances from adult men in a chat room. With astonishing brazenness, these men send lewd photographs of themselves, propose sex and, when encouraged by the decoy, show up at her door ready for an encounter with a girl they believe to be a minor.

During the confrontation the alleged predators have with "Dateline's" reporter and then with police squads standing by to arrest them, it remains unclear how many men who made chat-room advances never showed up, or might have simply melted away if the decoy had told them to get lost. While "Dateline" has won broad accolades for the popular show, it has also come in for criticism from civil rights advocates and journalistic watchdogs.

The new attorneys general task force report, "Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies," found that most reports of online sexual predation predate the rise of social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Friendster. And it found that most sexual fishing expeditions take place outside of these networking sites, in chat rooms and online forums intended for adults.

Moreover, the task force report suggested that parents' worries may be largely misplaced: In most of the off-line encounters that began on the Internet, it found, "the minor knows the adult is older [usually in his or her twenties], knows that sex is desired, and believes that she or he can consent to a sexual encounter." And though parents appear to believe that most sexual advances are made by older adults, the task force found that almost half of sexual solicitations to kids over the Internet are made by other minors, and most of the rest come from young adults 18 to 25 years old.

Such facts confront many parents with a litany of uncomfortable but age-old conflicts: The kids who are trolling for sex may be our own; the peers with whom these kids are exploring their emerging sexuality have edged out parents as an influence; and these young people are taking risks that parents cannot easily control.

In short, Wolf says, the kids are growing up. Only now their teenage angst is being played out in a medium that "does make certain kinds of naughtiness" -- including the posting of suggestive photos -- "more possible." It's a medium, as well, in which parents feel outrun, outmaneuvered and just plain shut out by the digital pioneers they spawned.

"Kids have left their parents way in the dust in terms of computer savvy and knowledge," says psychologist Richard A. Lieberman, who coordinates the L.A. Unified School District's Suicide Prevention Unit, the only one of its kind in the nation. "I see parents further behind than ever before . . . they're overwhelmed" by the effort to monitor their kids' electronic and real-life socializing and keep up with their own obligations.

In a 2007 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation's Media and Health project, parents expressed growing confidence that they are cracking into their children's electronic world. Nearly three in four surveyed said they know "a lot" about what their kids are doing online. And among parents of kids who socialized electronically, 82% said they review their child's social networking profile, 87% said they check their child's instant-messaging "buddy list," and 76% say they go online to check what websites their kids have visited.

Lieberman thinks that these parents are probably kidding themselves -- or that many may be so busy reading over their kids' shoulders that they fail to get a good reading of the kids themselves.

"I've had a parent say, 'What do you mean my daughter's depressed and isolated? She has 900 friends on MySpace!,' " Lieberman says.

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melissa.healy@latimes.com

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latimes.com /health

Sociable security

As an add to government efforts, MySpace and Facebook adopt child safety rules.

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