Your Teen Meets More Predators in Church

Your Teen Meets More Predators in Church

July 14th, Bastille Day, 2007

Atlantic Magazine (July/August 2007) is just the latest media outlet to waste umpteen thousand words manufacturing the image of a cyberjungle of diabolically clever predators lurking to abduct, ravage, and murder your child. What a pointless crock of yuppie frettings the MySpace.com panic has become.

Caitlin Flanagan’s endless review (“Babes in the Woods,” Atlantic, July/August 2007) of equally silly books and opinions about MySpace.com predators, bullies, and just plain untoward messages supposedly menacing every teen with a modem never once tells us: Why is this important?

Of 40-plus million regular MySpace users (MySpace claims 100 million plus accounts, but a savvy geek shows fewer than half are regulars), how many actual cases of teens being killed, seduced, or otherwise harmed by predators they met online exist? Query law enforcement agencies concerned with internet crime and you’ll find very, very few. The MySpace and online panics are fabricated. Teens are handling cyberspace just fine. Cybertragedies are vanishingly rare.

Note that news stories keep recycling a 2006 murder in Washington and other rare cases years and thousands of miles and years apart as if they constitute a “pattern.” The numbers are so low that police, news reporters, and net-nanny censorware peddlers have to make up cases. Recently, my own local TV news used the case of a murdered teen whose MySpace account, by police admission, had nothing to do with her abduction to run several features on the dangers of MySpace.

In fact, a teenager is much safer unsupervised on MySpace than in church. In the last eight years, more than a dozen teens have been shot to death in mass shootings in church or at church functions. Thousands of children and teens have been confirmed as victims of sexual abuse. So, parents, protect your teens—let them stay home from church and go online instead.

And don’t interfere with their net use. Statistically, teens are in much more danger from adults who supervise them than from anyone they might meet online. In 2004, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect confirmed that 1,400 children and teens were murdered and 180,000 teens were victims of violent and sexual abuses by parents in 2004). I could easily document more violent teen deaths in one impoverished Los Angeles zip code (say, 90044) in five months—and more in American families in five days—than could be blamed on MySpace interactions nationwide in five years.

Indeed, Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” should reassure parents about their kids’ safety online (the pathetic dumbness of the men its stings lure to camera exposure with promises of pubescent sex shows why so few teens are lured by these dufi online) at the same time it shows conventional dangers (these predators include teachers, coaches, principals, cops, ministers, and others with plenty of respectable institutional access to kids offline).

The Ad Council and other panickers warn: “One in five kids are [sic] sexually solicited online.” (That’s all? I get a dozen generic propositions every day.) Teens can handle it. In giant Los Angeles County, the Southern California High Tech Task Force reports zero cases of criminal behavior connected to MySpace. I’ve surveyed hundreds of my students, net veterans all, without unearthing significant online dangers other than the usual annoyances encountered offline. “I met more weirdoes in Boy Scouts,” one wrote. “Would you rather encounter a psychopath online, or at a bus stop?” another observed.

MySpace phobia is warping adult values more than teens’. For a particularly overwrought travesty, read Los Angeles Times writer Catherine Saillant’s April 8, 2006, front-page narcissism: “I’ve covered murders, grisly accidents, airplanes falling out of the sky and, occasionally, dirty politics,” Saillant began. “But in nearly two decades of journalism, nothing has made my insides churn like seeing what my 13-year-old daughter and her friends are up to on MySpace.com.”

What outrage could Saillant’s daughter and her peers possibly have committed that horrified her mother more than mangled bodies and screaming victims? The girl occasionally saw and used bad words on her MySpace website. She once posted a joking picture of her and friend flipping the finger. The horror. Welcome to privileged adults’ self-doting bubble world, in which a daughter’s mild growing-ups so enrage her growing-old mother that the rest of the universe vanishes in irrelevance. The moral values Saillant’s daughter encounters online couldn’t possibly be worse than her mother’s narcissistic mispriorities.

Why are we hearing all these commentators endlessly fretting about imaginary dangers like MySpace and attributing all kinds of made-up miseries to the Net? Three big reasons. First, the Internet is a new technology, one which the young are naturally more adept than adults, and that always foments crazed elder panics. Second, the net offers teenagers much-needed, global sources of information not controlled by adults, which is a good thing precisely because it worries grownups. Finally, grownups today are more messed up than ever, projecting their rising epidemics of drug abuse, crime, imprisonment, personal and family disarray, and moralistic retreats into reactionary mindsets on the young.

Americans’ rampant fear of cyberyouth is worse than just another elder panic driven by cheap profiteering and press sensationalism. There’s something sinister about a society in which the slightest effort by adolescents to establish lives of their own immediately draws a howling mob of fear-mongering demagogues. Especially when that society is so indifferent to real dangers young people face, starting with poverty and family abuses.

Well, buck up, grownups. We grayhairs can handle new things, too. Tell the censor-sellers, Dr. Phil, and all the media panic-mongering “experts” like Campus Outreach Services director Katie Koestner, who (speaking of bullies) wins press adoration by sweepingly branding all youths as “mean” and “demonic,” to sign off. Liberate your psyches and homes from the wimpy Net Nannies, spy-on-your-kid schemes, and experts’ paranoid ravings. Give your teens the space to grow up. Anything to improve the odds that they’ll turn out better than us.