The MySpace Dilemma: Keeping Your Kids Safe Online

The anonymity and anything-goes nature of the Internet is a lure for sexual predators. We need to reconcile this with our children's growing passion for online social networking.

June 23, 2007

13 Min Read
Network Computing logo

The rise of online networking has created social and educational opportunities, but that's not all. It has also created significant risk. The Internet may be the information superhighway, but it has also become a conduit for sexual exploitation of children and teens.

"The Internet has expanded our lives incredibly, but it has also expanded our kids' availability to predators and lowered the barriers between fantasy and behavior," said Judy Westberg-Warren, president of Web Wise Kids, an organization founded to educate youth about responsible Internet behavior.

According to a recent study titled "The State of Internet Security: Protecting Children Online," by Webroot Software, 43% of children aged 11 to 17 who use social-networking sites reported having been contacted online by complete strangers, while 37% said they've received a sexually explicit e-mail or pop-up advertisement over the past year. An April 2007 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, "Teens, Privacy & Online Social Networks," had similar findings: Of the 55% of teens who have online profiles on a social-networking site, 43% said they've been contacted by strangers. Although 65% of these teens said they ignored the contact or deleted it, 21% admitted following up on the solicitation. And many observers say these numbers are inaccurate, as children are notoriously unreliable when self-reporting behaviors they know will be frowned upon.

"The number of kids who are willing to set up meetings with people they don't know in real life is off the charts," said Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer and executive director of Wired Safety, a Web site devoted to helping victims of cyber-abuse, ranging from online fraud to cyber-stalking and child safety. A 1999 study conducted by the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of Southern Florida -- to date the largest study of teenage girls' online behavior -- found that 12% of the 11,000 girls polled had arranged face-to-face meetings with strangers they met online. But at seminars for middle- and high-school students that Aftab regularly conducts across the country, she routinely finds between 20% and 25% of kids openly admit to arranging such meetings. "And you know it's larger than that, because kids don't talk," Aftab said. "They don't want to get into trouble."

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children operates the CyberTip Hotline, created in 1998, to let members of the public report child exploitation. Today 2,300 to 3,000 cases are reported each week, "The numbers speak for themselves," said Michelle Collins, director of the NCMEC. Very little is known about the perpetrators of online sexual solicitations. Experts suspect that the same anonymity that causes people to lower their social inhibitions and behave inappropriately online -- for example, sending rude e-mails and making abusive comments in online forums -- is leading to an epidemic of online sexual exploitation of children."Judging from anecdotal case reports, people who are engaging in these behaviors would probably never do them in traditional ways," said Dr. Stefan Dombrowski, assistant professor of graduate education at the School of Psychology at Rider University and author of Protecting Children from Online Sexual Predators: Technological, Psychoeducational, and Legal Considerations. "The anonymity the Internet often makes people feel much more open to moving beyond fantasy and crossing a line that they otherwise would be too scared or inhibited to cross."

"The Internet can be very dangerous for people who are just on the verge," agreed Dr. Leigh Baker, director of the Trauma Treatment Center of Colorado in Denver and author of Protecting Your Children From Sexual Predators. "There are so many temptations out there, especially when you consider the immense volume of trafficking in child pornography, that it can create the kind of excitement that leads to actions."

Unfortunately, no one knows for sure. "We simply don't have sufficient empirical literature about online sexual predators," said Dombrowski. "We don't have profiles the way we do with face-to-face sexual deviant behavior. We don't know the recidivism rate. We don't know if these are first-time or repeat offenders. We need to learn much, much more."

Online sexual predation typically manifests itself in one of three ways: approaching children online so as to arrange meetings in real life; sexual exploitation short of real-life meetings; and child pornography. These final two categories are growing rapidly, according to experts. "There are a lot of people not willing to risk offline meetings, but who are sexually exploiting kids through pornography or through sexual chat," said Aftab. This can take the form of viewing child pornography, sending it to children, or encouraging children to set up Webcams or photograph themselves and send or post the images, she said. "Even if it doesn't result in an actual meeting, it can be extremely destructive to the child."

"A lot of these people simply don't see themselves as sex offenders, because there's no hands-on aspect to it," said Charles Onley, a research associate at the Center for Sex Offender Management. "They don't understand that they're supporting an industry that harms children."One issue is that many online predators simply don't think of what they're doing as wrong -- they see the medium as being a space outside of the real world, and that virtual exercising of their fantasies simply can't do much damage, according to Westberg-Warren."The Internet makes it easy for would-be predators to find like-minded individuals online, share images and experiences, and indulge in their fantasies," Lori McPherson, a senior attorney at the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse at the American Prosecutors Research Institute. And because the Internet is so desensitizing, online child pornography may well be opening up the floodgates, making it easier for people with tendencies toward sexual attraction to children to take the next step.

With high-speed Internet broadband access and extensive storage, it's not uncommon to find 40,000 or 50,000 pornographic images of children on a single arrested person's computer, said the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Collins. One study found that 80% of those arrested for child porn had relationships with a child, she added. "These child pornography cases generally spin out into much larger cases, with no geographic boundaries."

Still, some recent statistics are actually encouraging. A study by University of New Hampshire researchers for the NCMEC comparing children's online experiences in 1999-2000 with those in 2005 shows that in 2000, one in five children aged 10 to 17 were being sexually solicited online, but that number dropped in 2005 to one in seven.

"Unfortunately, only one in three children will tell us about it," said Collins. This raises questions about the validity of these numbers. And there was bad news mixed in with the good. In 2005, one-third of the children had been exposed to pornography compared to 25% in the earlier study. Additionally, the most serious type of sexual advances -- the ones in which online predators attempted to meet children offline " didn't decline. Researchers concluded that this means the most determined solicitors haven't been deterred despite efforts by law enforcement and education.

People have attempted to identify the children who might be more vulnerable to victimization: Typically, they come from dysfunctional or impoverished situations and have experienced social alienation, or they're suffering from depression or other emotional difficulties. "Just as in real life, online perpetrators are good at sensing that maladjusted youths often lack support systems in their lives, and therefore are more susceptible to exploitation," said Rider University's Dombrowski.A study published in the February 2007 issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine examined nine online behaviors that have been frequently cited as leading to online victimization, including putting personal information online; sending personal information online; talking about sex with someone known only online; and purposely visiting an X-rated Web site. Three-fourths of children admitted they had engaged in at least one of the risky behaviors; almost 30% said they had engaged in four or more, making them 11 times more likely to be victimized than those who didn't perform any of the behaviors, according to the study.But some observers feel that many of these fears are overblown. Larry Rosen, for one, said there's an unjustified "moral panic" fanned by the media. Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University in Dominguez Hills and author of the forthcoming book, Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation, recently conducted a study of 1,200 children under the age of 18 on MySpace. "What they tell us is that they're very good at handling any problems," he said. Although there are probably sexual predators on MySpace, Rosen admitted, "the kids tell me they don't encounter them very often, and when they do encounter them, they handle them with ease. They're good at blocking people from their sites, they yell at the person, they refuse to engage."

About the University of New Hampshire study showing that one in seven children have been sexually solicited, Rosen said, "it's not insignificant, but it's probably the ratio in the real world." In response to the statistic cited by attorney general Alberto Gonzales that 50,000 predators troll the Internet every day, Rosen said, "that number has been floated for a long time, and although it's interesting, there's no data to prove it."

The Pew Internet & American Life Project study found that most teenagers appear to be actively protecting themselves online. Only 11% of teens on social networks post both their first and last names on publicly accessible profiles; only 5% give out their full names, photos, and the town they live in; and 46% of those with publicly accessible profiles give false information on their profiles, as much to protect themselves as to be "playful and silly," the teenagers said.

They also appear to be savvy about understanding how technology -- particularly search engines -- might expose them to risks. Twenty-three percent said it would be "pretty easy" for someone to find out who they were; and 40% believe they could eventually be found online. And most of them " 73% -- said that the chances of being solicited by a stranger were much higher online than off.

It's also important to understand that 95% of Internet sexual crimes against underage children are non-forced and statutory in nature, according to Michele Ybarra, president of Internet Solutions for Kids. Seventy-three percent of victims who went to one sexual encounter voluntarily went again. "These teenagers know they're talking to an adult who wants sex. In most cases, there's no deception at all," she said.This doesn't make it alright; it means that the real dangers of the Internet lie in areas other than what parents think, Ybarra said.

"Most kids are well aware that there are 40-year-old men who lurk in chat rooms pretending to be kids. That's not the problem. To keep their kids safe, parents need to talk to them about what is really going on, which is this consensual but inappropriate behavior," said Ybarra. A big part of the problem is the lack of resources of local law enforcement organizations. "Law enforcement is absolutely overwhelmed. They have so many other things to deal with," said Dombrowski.

If a 14-year-old girl in his private therapy practice reveals that she's engaging in ongoing cyber-sexual chat with an older male, Dombrowski is obligated by law to report that to child protective services—but not to a law enforcement agency. He always reports it, he said, but then the agency has to devote resources to going online and attempting to trace that individual, which is likely to be beyond its technical skills or resources.

"Money is always an issue on the state side; they don't have the labs or the forensic capabilities, and defense cases tend to be well funded," said attorney McPherson. "Attempts to prosecute are outstripping the infrastructure." She pointed out that a small police department can't just sit someone down in front of the computer to do proactive investigations. "Yet the one thing we know is that the more investigations you do, the more victims you're going to find. There's a seemingly inexhaustible pool of predators out there," McPherson said.

Said Allison Turkel, senior attorney and chief of training for the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, "Every state has a different name for these crimes, and a different way to track and report them. There's no central repository."When law enforcement sets up sting operations, that's fairly effective, but they can't catch them all, said the Trauma Treatment Center of Colorado's Baker. "But there's no way to arrest our way out of this problem. One is arrested, another shows up."

The federal government has been stepping up and has established 46 federally funded law enforcement agencies that work with local agencies. By partnering with 1,500 law enforcement agencies, they're creating a network so that local and state agencies can talk to each other. "Different agencies are beginning to build bridges among themselves," said Collins. "This is good news," she said.

Still, there's no panacea. "Every day the technology changes, and prosecution and law enforcement are running as fast as we can just to keep up," Turkel said. "Some blocking software for little kids work, but it's not enough. Law enforcement personnel need to be trained. Children and parents need to be educated. Children must be armed against sexual solicitation, and parents need to create an open venue for talking. There are ways to address this, but it comes from multiple sources."

A case in point: In December 2006, MySpace agreed to identify and purge accounts of registered sex offenders. The social-networking site has been matching users to information in its Sentinel Safe database and deleting registered sex offenders' profiles since May 2. That's not enough, said eight attorneys general, who demanded that MySpace turn over those names so they could investigate exactly who those individuals had been communicating with, and whether any crimes had been committed. At first, MySpace refused, stating that state and federal laws protect the privacy of its members without subpoenas. A number of states soon provided them, which allowed MySpace a week later to provide all 50 states with that information.

But actions like these can give people a false sense of security, said Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association. "Will registering e-mail addresses of sex offenders work? Maybe for the really dumb ones. The others will just sign up for a new e-mail address and do what they want to do at public libraries where they can't be traced."Attempting to stay on top of new and emerging threats is difficult. There are cells phones with GPS capabilities; texting and IM through a variety of devices; and the prevalence of home video production facilities that make it easier for both predators and teens to make and post sexual images online. "The GPS capabilities are especially alarming, because it could easily be an avenue for a predator to locate a child," said Web Wise Kids' Westberg-Warren."The bottom line is, even one child is too much, and it's happening to more than one child," said Aftab. Crime-reporting forms don't mention the Internet. "We can't solve the problem until we know the scope," she said.

The most important thing is for parents and children to engage with one another actively and create contracts that are very explicit about what is and isn't allowed, Baker said. These contracts should include things such as, the computer is never used alone and it's turned off at night. Said Baker, "Understand the risks out there, and prepare children for them. Nothing beats education and communication."

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights