Wes: Headline: "Online predators are stalking your child." Hundreds of dangerous goons have been nabbed by sting operations in which officers pose as teenagers willing to engage in sex. NBC's "Dateline" ran a version of this sting. Parents, schools and law enforcement have urged kids to avoid MySpace and other online social networks as perfect dens for predators to seek out hapless victims. As John notes below, Congress is even involved.
When I first heard this, I was instantly suspicious. There are many serious issues facing today's teens. This did not seem like one of them. First of all, real sex offenders are crafty and devious people, sometimes victimizing hundreds of children. The "Dateline" guys didn't exactly match this description. I called a Kansas City radio show and asked an FBI sting agent how many real victims his targets had harmed. He admitted the FBI had no idea. Finally, with a few notable exceptions, the idea of teenagers soliciting or responding to adult sexual advances online seemed unlikely to me. Kids 13 years and older have told me some pretty shocking secrets about their sexual practices. None have mentioned this.
Media scares are nothing new. In the '80s we were told of "nursery school sex rings" forming complex networks all around the country. In the late '70s, complex networks of cults allegedly sacrificed hundreds of people in the name of Satan. Yet, neither of these movements was ever proven out, and I suspected the same for the online predator frenzy. We now have some data to prove it.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, leading experts on such matters, just issued a study of 55,000 households. They found that teenagers are actually receiving fewer sexual solicitations despite an enormous increase in Internet access. The authors credit the teens themselves, noting they are becoming "smarter about where they hang out and with whom they communicate online." Of the sexual solicitations that were reported, many "came from other teens rather than adults, and few rose to the level of predation." In fact, the report notes, "a significant portion of what they are calling sexual solicitation is merely teens being teens ... the dangers are real, but they are not as significant as they have been hyped in recent months. ... People have fears that these crimes involve offenders and predators who look at these sites and then seek to identify these kids. That's not really what's going on." I'll put a link to the entire story online on our resource page at www.ftimidwest.com.
If reasonable safety precautions are followed, networking sites allow access to friendship for young people who may be not be as socially adept as their peers. Kids can make friends all over the world or right down the street. While they shouldn't replace "real world" friends, they can help build real relationships in a way that has never existed before.
Let's not kid ourselves. Real sex offenders are everywhere. Most are undiscovered. They integrate into our communities, our families and daily life. The only real defense is to raise wise, self-protective kids, as John notes below. Besides, if you think about it, it's safer to sit at home and block an e-mail address that you don't approve of then to go to the mall and confront that person in real life.
John: Not that you had anything to fear anyway. Our civil servants are working hard to pass a new law to protect your children. (That's your cue to panic.) The Deleting Online Predators Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Ohio, would require minors to receive parental consent before visiting social networks on public school and library computers. (Remember when Republicans stood for less regulation?)
Besides the arguments against protectionism in my junk food column, one has to wonder why Congress felt more qualified to decide where students should surf than the schools and libraries themselves. The bill already has passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, but it will need a Senate vote before it can mark another glorious chapter in government's history of solving nonexistent problems.
Personal Web sites have their place, but one has to appreciate the risks involved. The public may be overreacting to online sex predators, but it is not paying nearly enough attention to the concept of "digital dirt." About a year ago, KU professor Paul Mirecki announced he was going to teach a class on intelligent design. Some claimed he would not approach the topic objectively, but Mirecki dismissed the claim as unfounded. But then came the discovery of Mirecki's comments on a list serv for KU's Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics. "The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category 'mythology,'" he bragged. Mirecki's class was canceled, and he resigned as department chairman.
Mirecki forgot the first law of Internet safety: Never post what you do not want in The New York Times. Teens would be wise to learn from his example and design a MySpace they'd be comfortable with their bosses seeing. If you ever choose to meet an online acquaintance, the usual litany of precautions apply. Make sure your friends are real, and not salespeople (such as ForBiddeN, a luscious young mistress who doubles as an advertiser for Axe.). Always meet in a public place, preferably with a buddy. Be sure a parent knows what you have planned. If you have to hide your new friend, you probably shouldn't be meeting up. Finally, having a constructive activity planned will go a long way to keep you out of trouble. May I suggest writing to Congress?
Next week: A reader questions a previous column about gay teens.