Study blasted for downplaying online threats to children

A report released Wednesday by a task force set up by MySpace paints a surprisingly benign picture of the online security and privacy threats faced by children. But the report's conclusion - that some of the common concerns about those threats may be overstated or misplaced - is drawing sharp criticism from some quarters.

A report released Wednesday by a task force set up by MySpace paints a surprisingly benign picture of the online security and privacy threats faced by children. But the report's conclusion - that some of the common concerns about those threats may be overstated or misplaced - is drawing sharp criticism from some quarters.

Perhaps the most scathing critique came from South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, who blasted the report for creating a "false sense of security" about online child safety. In a letter (download PDF) addressed to a working group of the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) - which commissioned the report early last year - McMaster asserted that the task force's findings are "as disturbing as they are wrong."

The 279-page report at the center of the controversy is titled "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies" and based on a review of academic and industry research. It was compiled by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which was created last February as part of an agreement between MySpace and the NAAG aimed at improving online safety for children, particularly on social networking sites. The AGs signed a similar deal with Facebook last May.

The task force was directed by Harvard University's prestigious Berkman Center for Internet & Society. In addition to MySpace and Facebook - which both pledged to add new security features to their Web sites as part of their deals with the AGs - the task force members included representatives from companies such as Google, Microsoft and AOL and from several child safety and public policy advocacy organizations.

The report says that contrary to popular perceptions, the biggest risks that teenagers and younger children face on the Internet are cyber-bullying and online harassment - not sexual predators. And the most frequent threats to children on social networking sites and the Internet in general come not from predatory older adults, but from their peers and young adults, according to the report.

The task force's findings shouldn't be misconstrued as a statement that the Internet doesn't pose risks for children, said John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based think tank that took part in producing the report.

The most important takeaway, Morris said, is that despite the "hype and hysteria" among the general public and the media, online risks to children are sometimes less serious and more nuanced than typically assumed. "No one is saying the online environment is risk-free," he said. "But in the end, the research shows that social networking environments are generally safe for kids and that the ones at risk online are the ones who [also] are at risk offline."

Although online sexual solicitation of minors by adults is a concern, it happens less often than popularly assumed, according to the task force's report. The number of cases that have been reported to law enforcement officials in which online contact between adults and minors leads to physical sexual encounters is relatively small, the report claims. And, it says, such situations typically involve "postpubescent youth" who are often aware beforehand that they're dealing with adults.

According to the report, the percentage of youths who said they had received sexual solicitations online declined from 19% in 2000 to 13% in 2006. More than 80% of the recipients of such solicitations are between 14 and 17 years old, the report says, and in nearly half of the cases, the youths identified other adolescents as being the solicitors.

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