Adam and I are heading down to North Carolina tomorrow to testify against a bill pending in the state legislature that would require anyone under 18 to have a parent’s permission to join a social networking site such as MySpace. Adam has written extensively about Internet safety. Here’s my take.
At first glance, that might seem like a sensible idea. But, as I keep pointing out to anyone who will listen, it just won’t work. How can a website be sure that someone signing up is really over 18? How can a website be sure that a person giving parental consent is really a parent? Experience and common sense suggest that education and prevention are a far better approach to Internet safety.
Indeed, a study published earlier this year in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine suggests that a lot of the advice we have been giving young people about Internet safety may be off the mark anyway. The researchers found no evidence that sharing personal information online increases the chances of online victimization, like unwanted sexual solicitation and harassment. Victimization is more likely to result from other online behavior, like talking about sex with people met online and intentionally embarrassing someone else on the Internet.
These findings are in line with earlier research by the University of New Hampshire that examined 2,500 cases where juveniles were victims of sex crimes committed by people they met on the Internet. The study found that these children, almost all teenagers, were not victims of strangers who had lured them into situations where they could be abducted or assaulted. In fact, just the opposite was the case.
The adult offenders usually didn’t try to deceive their victims about their age or their interest in sexual relationships. Only five percent lied about their age in order to pose as a minor.
Age verification and parental consent may be politically popular, but they would only give parents concerned about online safety a dangerously false sense of security. Rather than trying to impose unworkable age verification and parental consent requirements on social networking sites, we should authorize more money for equipment and training to support specialized investigations and prosecution of actual online crime. We should also enact tougher penalties for online sexual predators? Finally, let’s pay attention to the growing body of research and spend more on programs to teach kids how to use the Internet safely and responsibly?