Debunking Myths about Social Networking

by on March 20, 2007

Yesterday I noted that I have a new study out entitled Social Networking and Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions.” In yesterday’s post, I highlighted the general conclusions of my paper. Today I want to discuss how much of the push for age verification of social networking sites is being driven by unfounded fears and irrational myths about the nature of social networking and the severity of online child abuse.

Indeed, although I set out to write my entire paper about age verification, I ended up spending the first third of the paper just debunking myths about social networking websites and online predation. That’s because I found that this debate is being driven almost entirely by myths and irrational fears.

The primary fear that drives this debate is the fear of bad guys lurking online and waiting to snatch up our children. While there have been a handful of highly publicized cases of minors being contacted and later abducted or abused by child predators on social networking sites, such cases do not mean that a national epidemic of Internet-related child abductions is occurring. I go on to highlight social science research proving that this fear has been greatly overblown. Indeed, every study of the issue of predation and sexual abuse reveals the same thing: abductions by strangers represent a tiny portion of all missing children cases. In the vast majority of child abduction and sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator was a known acquaintance of the child in their community or, sadly, often within their own home. My paper documents this finding.

Not only is it a myth that there is a growing epidemic of Internet-facilitated child abductions, but it is also a myth that all children are equally susceptible to falling prey to online predators. In reality, the population of “at-risk” youngsters who are most likely to become the victim of online predators is very small. I highlight social science research revealing that this small population of at-risk youth are the ones that get in the most trouble online, just as they do offline. The enter into relationships with men that who they know are older than them and who have made their sexual intentions clear. Again, my report documents these findings.

Why do such youth consent to meet with older strangers and even engage in shocking and disturbing acts with them? , Unsurprisingly, research reveals that this small population of youngsters came from broken homes. They did not have a good relationship with their parents. In many cases, the victims reported a high degree of conflict with their parents or very little parental interaction and mentoring. In some cases, parents were absent from the home altogether. Loneliness and depression were also prevalent traits in many of the youngsters. And some of the boys who became willing victims were “gay or questioning” about their sexuality and were scared to talk to the parents or educators about it.

Those children are at-risk youth who need help. What they most need is love and understanding. When they cannot get them because of parental estrangement or incompetence, it is not surprising that some will look elsewhere for acceptance. Although the Internet and social networking websites provide them with one potential way of finding help or building rewarding friendships, the danger exists that they might be so desperate for such acceptance that they would even seek it from some older strangers who might want to befriend them only to satisfy perverted sexual desires.

But it would be wrong to assume that ALL youth share those same problems or would voluntarily meet — or engage in sexual activity with — an older man. Rather, only a handful of at-risk youth give rise to this problem. And even if we could find an effective way for all Internet sites to age-verify their users, many of these at-risk youth would likely still seek out acceptance from older figures using alternative means.

Another myth I address is that all sexual “solicitations” online come from adults. In reality, research shows that a significant percentage of online sexual solicitations are simply kids talking to other kids. In other words, when 17-year old Johnny propositions 16-year-old Jenny, it counts as a “solicitation” for purposes of social science research, but the press and policy makers rarely point that out. Of course, teens were delivering salacious solicitations to each other long before the Internet came along, but parents had no way to track sexual solicitations unless they found a dirty note in a schoolbag or pants pocket.

This reality is not to condone the rude and raunchy behavior that some teens engage in, but we need to be realistic about the issue and to understand that, in a certain sense, this problem has always been with us. It’s just more visible to us now. For the first time, we are measuring things that were previous unmeasured or unmeasurable. Regardless, teens trash-talking to other teens is a problem that will not disappear with the imposition of age-verification on social networking sites.

A final myth about social networking that I discuss in my paper is that teens are at a much greater risk in these online communities than they were in the offline social communities of the past. It’s clear that part of what is driving the push to regulate social networking sites is that many adults simply don’t understand this new technology and have created a sort of “moral panic” around it. But parents misunderstanding teens–or a new trend or technology that teens love–is really nothing new. For example, today’s grandparents will recall that when they were teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s, their parents worried about their hanging out at burger joints and roller rinks. And today’s parents will remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, their parents were concerned about their hanging around shopping malls and video arcades. Those places were the social networking sites of their eras. And so it continues with the networking sites that today’s youngsters enjoy: digital, interactive websites.

Parents need to remember that they were once kids too, and they managed to live through many of the same fears and concerns about new media technologies and types of teen interaction. As University of North Carolina journalism professor Margaret A. Blanchard once noted:

[P]arents and grandparents who lead the efforts to cleanse today’s society seem to forget that they survived alleged attacks on their morals by different media when they were children. Each generation’s adults either lose faith in the ability of their young people to do the same or they become convinced that the dangers facing the new generation are much more substantial than the ones they faced as children.

And so the cycle of fear continues.

In my next installment in this series, I will address some of the weaknesses, or even dangers, associated with leading varieties of age verification that are being proposed for social networking sites.

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