Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Safer than we thought

As I've written recently, many parents and child advocates view social networking sites as online swamps full of lurking sexual predators, kind of like this:

But a new study from researchers at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society suggests that may be more the product of media hype and parental fears than reality. According to the New York Times (who received a draft version of the report due out tomorrow*):
"The report criticized previous findings that one in five or one in seven minors are sexually propositioned online, saying that in a strong majority of those situations, a child’s peers are responsible for the proposition, which typically amounts to an act of harassment or teasing."
Further, the authors of the study note that in most cases of online sexual predation, "teenagers are typically willing participants and are at risk in other ways (with poor home environments, depression or substance abuse, for example)."

It's doubtful that a study like this will have much impact in the psyche of parents. The dangers of online behavior have been greatly exaggerated for years and empirical evidence is usually overwhelmed by an anecdote or 10 minutes of "To Catch a Predator". But the research supports the conclusion that while the internet provides a new medium for social interaction, people are still people. As John Cardillo--chief executive of Sentinel Tech Holding, which maintains a sex offender database and was a member of the task force--is quoted saying:
“Social networks are very much like real-world communities that are comprised mostly of good people who are there for the right reasons.”
*I'll be sure to post the link as soon as the study is available online.

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