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.

Also, while the Internet may increase the availability of illegal and inappropriate content, that doesn't always mean minors are automatically exposed to such materials, the report says. Often, it adds, children who do view pornography online - such as older male minors - were actively seeking out the content.

"The research doesn't bear out this notion that social networks are cesspools of predators," said Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a Web site and forum operated by the nonprofit Tech Parenting Group. Instead, what it reveals is a more nuanced situation, in which the children who are most at risk or are engaging in dangerous behavior online also have a tendency to be at risk in the physical world, Magid said.

And more often than not, the biggest threat children face online comes in the form of cyber-bullying by their peers, Magid said. He added that understanding such issues is important because most of the policy decisions surrounding the online privacy and security of young people are being influenced by misconceptions about the nature of the threats they face.

For instance, from a policy perspective, the idea of requiring social networking sites to use age-verification technologies to protect minors is misplaced, Morris contended. "When you start looking at the actual risk, you realize that technologies such as age verification don't do much to address the problem," he said. "That's because you don't have a huge rampant problem of 40-year old men tricking 15-year olds to have sex [with them]."

As a result, using age-verification tools is likely to succeed only in driving away teenagers and other children away from what are relatively safe and healthy social environments for them, Morris claimed.

Not everyone agrees, though. McMaster, the South Carolina attorney general, said in his letter to the NAAG that the report's conclusions are at odds with his state's data on the subject of Internet child safety.

In South Carolina, at least, Internet predators "pose a clear and present danger" to children, McMaster wrote. He noted that a task force of 43 state and local law enforcement agencies formed in South Carolina in 2004 has made 147 arrests for online child solicitation thus far. Sixty-six of the arrested individuals have been convicted to date, while the rest are awaiting trial, McMaster said.

In addition, the increasing prevalence of mobile phones, PDAs, video gaming systems and online social networking sites is putting children more at risk than anytime previously, according to McMaster. Because of what he characterized as the report's incorrect conclusions "and the troubling false sense of security that they create," South Carolina is withdrawing from the 49-state working group within the NAAG that commissioned the task force's report. (The Texas AG's office hasn't taken part in the working group.)

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, said the report's findings were tainted by the involvement of social networking sites and technology vendors that have a vested interest in keeping regulators at bay. "This is a flawed report that calls out for a renewed effort to come up with policies to protect youth online," Chester said. "It's unconscionable that a company like MySpace can simply rent out Harvard's Berkman Center as its own kind of private think tank and get the results it wants."

But Kathryn Montgomery, a professor at American University's School of Communications in Washington and a former director of the Center for Media Education, said it's important to keep a sense of perspective about the report's findings.

Because the report was compiled by a task force so heavily laden with industry representatives, it needs to be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism, Montgomery said. "It doesn't surprise me that it has reached these conclusions," she said. "This is indeed what the industry wanted. Clearly, it was designed to assuage concern and keep any regulation from happening."

At the same time, the report is accurate in stating that the online security risks faced by children are overblown, Montgomery claimed. She added that social networks do give children a healthy environment in which to interact with one another, and that the public image of such sites has been diminished by an unmerited focus on security risks by policy makers and the media.

"The press likes this stuff," Montgomery said. "It's about Internet safety and kids as victims. [But] it tends to get blown out of proportion, and everybody thinks that social networks are only about that."

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Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Computerworld (US)
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