Nancy Willard Puts Social Networking Risks in Context

by on February 2, 2009 · 24 comments

Online child safety — especially the fear of predators lurking on social networking sites (SNS) — continues to spur calls by state and federal lawmakers for regulation.  At first, some federal lawmakers advocated outright bans on SNS in schools and libraries via the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA).  Meanwhile, state and local lawmakers — specifically state Attorneys General (AGs) — have been even more vociferous in their calls for regulation in the form of mandatory age verification for social networking sites, which would cover a broad swath of online sites and activities according to their definitions of SNS. But the question that ultimately gets lost in this debate is: Just how much risk do social networking sites really pose for teens?  Which risks are real and which are overblown? And what’s the best way to deal with the risks that we find to be legitimate?

Nancy Willard CSRIUNancy Willard devotes her life to answering those questions. Willard is one of America’s leading experts on online safety and risk prevention. She runs the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use and she is the author of two outstanding books, Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats and Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens.  In my opinion, Willard’s general approach to online child safety is the most enlightened, level-headed, and likely to be effective. That’s because Willard focuses on putting fears in perspective, identifying the actual risks that kids face online, and devising sensible strategies to deal with risks and problems as they are discovered. Her approach is holistic and built upon sound data, targeted risk-identification strategies, and time-tested education and mentoring methods. For my money, it’s the most sensible approach to online safety issues. In fact, when other parents ask me for “just one thing” to read on the topic, I usually recommend Willard’s work — especially her amazing book Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens. And her background in early childhood education, special education for “at risk” children with emotional and behavior difficulties, as well as experience in computer law, means she is uniquely suited to be analyzing these issues.  In sum, this is woman we should all be closely listening to on these issues.

Recently, Willard has been responding to criticisms that state AGs have leveled against the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) and its final report. [Disclaimer: I was a member of the ISTTF.] I’ve already outlined the ISTTF’s work at length here, but the three key takeaways from the report were that:

  1. the risk of predation on social network sites has been over-stated; the data suggest that cyber-bullying is the bigger problem on SNS;
  2. there is no silver-bullet technical solution to online child safety concerns, and mandatory age verification, in particular, would not make kids safer online but could even create bigger problems in the long-run;
  3. education and empowerment are the real keys to keeping kids safer online.


The response from some state AGs to these findings was quite hostile, with some arguing that the ISTTF did not take online risks seriously enough, or that we relied on “outdated and inadequate” data in reaching our conclusions.  Willard addresses those arguments in a new white paper: “Research that is ‘Outdated and Inadequate?’ An Analysis of the Pennsylvania Child Predator Unit Arrests in Response to Attorney General Criticism of the Berkman Task Force Report.”  In this study, she analyzes data from arrest records from Pennsylvania’s Child Predator Unit to determine exactly how these individuals were operating online. Although it’s just one state’s worth of data — that’s all that seems to have been made publicly available in a single database at this time — it can give us a clue to what might be going on out there. The results are illuminating.

Here’s what Willard found:

The search yielded 143 responses. As noted by the Attorney General, 183 predators had been arrested. All of these arrests were described in the press releases dated from March 21, 2005 to January 13, 2009 – thus allowing for a full analysis of the arrests of sexual predators in the state Pennsylvania for the last 4 years by the Attorney General’s Child Predator Unit. The analysis of the arrests that involved predatory actions, excluding the arrests for child pornography, revealed the following:

  • Only 8 incidents involved actual teen victims with whom the Internet was used to form a relationship.
    • In 4 of these incidents, teens or parents reported the contact. The other 4 cases were discovered in an analysis of the computer files of a predator who had been arrested in a sting operation. Five of the cases had led to inappropriate sexual contact. The other situations were discovered prior to any actual contact.
  • There were 166 arrests as a result of sting activities where the predator contacted an undercover agent who was posing as a 12 – 14 year old, generally a girl.
    • The vast majority of the stings, 144, occurred in chat rooms. Eleven stings occurred through instant messaging. Nine of the arrests failed to specify the location, but the description bore significant similarity to the chat room incidents. One involved an advertisement that had been placed on Craig’s List.
    • There were only 12 reports of predators being deceptive about their age.
    • The descriptions of these chats incidents bear out what the research reviewed by the [ISTTF's] Research Advisory Board found – that online predators are rarely deceptive about their interests.

Specifically,”Because the attorneys general have been focusing their attention on the social networking sites, MySpace and Facebook,” Willard made sure to give “special attention to any case that mentioned any activity occurring on either of these two sites.” Here’s what she found in that regard:

  • One of the incidents involving an actual teen victim, communications took place on MySpace. This was a rearrest of a person who had already been arrested through a sting.
  • A police officer who was arrested for sexual abuse of many teens with whom he had interacted with in the line of duty also had a MySpace account with friendship links to teen girl, but there was no assertion that these communications had led to sexual activity.
  • One predator in a sting provided the agent with a link to his Facebook page.
  • In 5 of the stings that took place in a chat room, reference was made to the fact that the predator had either looked at the teen’s MySpace account or suggested the teen look at his profile.

Importantly, Willard points out, “Despite the establishment of one or more public profiles on MySpace [by the PA Child Predator Unit], there has apparently not been one successful sting operation initiated on MySpace in the more than two years during which these sting profiles have been in existence.”

From these findings, Willard concludes that:

The insight gained through an analysis of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s press releases on arrests for online sexual predation provide strong support for the validity of the conclusions of the Berkman Research Advisory Board and demonstrate the need for greater collaboration between law enforcement and researchers to address the actual risks to young people from sexual predators online.

In other words, the Pennsylvania data seem to confirm that predation is not as serious of a risk on SNS as some AGs had claimed. “It appears that chat rooms are far less safe than social networking sites and that there is limited inclination and ability of predators to use social networking sites to contact potential teen victims,” Willard notes. Consequently, she argues:

Attention must be paid to the obvious risks related to chat room communications, as well as the risk factors that are being manifested by the young people who may still be frequenting these chat rooms, especially the chat rooms where sexual relations are being discussed. It appears that rather than seek ways to discourage teens from participating in social networking sites, these sites are destinations that should be encouraged as much safe than the alternatives. A focus must be placed on improving the protective features of chat rooms that are frequented by minors.

We need to know more about which chat rooms are in question and why some youth visit those chat rooms. More importantly, how can we develop sensible messages for youth about the dangers of chat rooms that are targeted to adults and adult sexual activity?

But it is vitally important not to lose sight of the big picture here. As Willard summarizes it:

The incidents of online sexual predation are rare. Far more children and teens are being sexually abused by family members and acquaintances. It is imperative that we remain focused on the issue of child sexual abuse – regardless of how the abusive relationship is initiated.

Indeed, volumes of research on child abuse, child predation, and child abduction all point to this same conclusion: Your kids are actually more at risk from known acquaintances — especially family members — than they are from random strangers (including random strangers they might meet online).

Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to develop sensible educational messages for youth about proper online behavior and how to report legitimate problems or troubling interactions that they experience online. Again, Willard has done this elsewhere and many of us (including those of us involved in the Berkman Center task force) have long been pushing for increased resources for online safety education and media literacy efforts as the first, best step towards improving online youth safety. We need to get AGs and other policymakers to work together with us to get this important task started — now!

Finally, Willard correctly notes that the AGs and other law enforcement agencies need to be willing to release more data like the Pennsylvania AG did such that further analysis of this problem is possible. If the AGs’ primary complaint with the ISTTF report was that the data we used was somewhat dated, then the best solution to that problem is for the AGs and other law enforcement agencies to open up their records to the child safety community so that risk researchers like Willard can get a better feel for what’s going on out there and devise strategies to deal with it.  Unfortunately, there’s still too much horn-locking going on between these communities and, sadly, I think some AGs are using this issue to create an atmosphere of fear for political gain. We need to find ways to communicate actual risks — such as those that kids would face in some specific, adult-oriented chat rooms — without going overboard and making parents and the general public think that there’s a bogeyman on every cyber-corner of the Internet.

[Further reading: As usual, my friend Anne Collier over at Net Family News.org has done a much better job summarizing an issue than I have. Read her discussion of Nancy Willard's paper and its implications here.]

Previous post:

Next post: