Internet Safer for Kids Than Church

Internet safer for kids than church

April 25, 2008

While at least nine children and teens have been killed in mass shootings and thousands are now documented victims of sexual abuse in churches and religious institutions over the last decade (see below*), new studies find virtually no violent dangers to teens stemming from their Internet use.

The panic over “Internet predators” danger is sorely misplaced from the beginning. If a predator encounters a youth via bulletin board ad, do we blame the fiberboard industry? But the biggest irony is that many of the sadsack “predators” trapped by police and media (such as NBC’s Dateline) stings turned out to be teachers, principals, coaches, cops, ministers, social workers, parents, even national security officers–that is, people with plenty of offline, direct access to kids.

Though the rhetoric issuing from media reports and “experts” (most self-serving net-nanny software peddlers) has been relentlessly alarmist, new studies find the tens of millions of teens who use the Internet daily face very little real danger. A survey of 2,574 law enforcement agencies by the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center found just 129 sexual offenses against teens stemming from people they met online in 2001-02. Of these, just 5% involved any kind of violence; the rest were the routine “statutory” offenses involving sexual encounters between adults and teens that have been going on for thousands of years and are much more prevalent in non-Internet venues today. Adults hid their age in only a few cases.

Projected from their random sample to the 10,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, the authors estimated perhaps 25 violent sex crimes against youths from online predators every year. By contrast, the 2006 Child Maltreatment study reports over 80,000 violent crimes, including 35,000 sex crimes, against teens age 12-17 every year perpetrated by their parents or caretakers. The dangers teens encounter online in a year are equal to about 6 hours of the danger they experience at home with their parents. Of course, many crimes against youth by internet predators no doubt go unreported, but so do most household crimes.

Another just completed follow-up study by UNH researchers confirmed that online sexual encounters very rarely involved violence, stalking, or deception and form only a tiny fraction of statutory rape cases. In fact, the offenses alleged to result from internet contacts form “a relatively low number of the sexual offenses committed against minors overall” and “are not particularly new or uncommon” elsewhere in society; the concern seems to center only on the fact that “a new form of communication is involved.” Contradicting widespread panics spread in the media, researchers found that “posting personal information online does not, by itself, appear to be a particularly risky behavior,” and “social networking sites such as MySpace do not appear to have increased the risk of victimization by online molesters.”

In particular, “youth Internet users with histories of offline sexual or physical abuse appear to be considerably more likely to receive online aggressive sexual solicitations,” suggesting that reducing adults’ abusive behavior toward children is a key to preventing their later vulnerability to the much rarer dangers online. But that isn’t the direction panicky news media reports (depicting their rising competitor medium as a menace to children–no self-interest there!) care to go.

Nor is the more mundane conclusion evident from these studies and the fact that sex crimes against young people have plummeted as youthful internet patronage has risen by the billions over the last decade: teenagers are neither stupid nor helpless in handling cyberspace. They’re not leaping through screens to abscond with hapless old predators after all. What bad news for the media and panic nannies.

*Notable recent U.S. church shootings victimizing teens (incomplete list):  Richmond, KN, 2/14/09, 2 teens shot, wounded;  Detroit, 2/27/06, 2 shot dead (1 teen);  Milwaukee, 3/12/05, 8 shot dead (1 teen);  Fort Worth, 8/15/99, 8 shot dead, 7 wounded (4 teens killed);  Dayton, OH, 7/8/99, 5 shot dead (3 teens killed).