Dangers Overblown for Teens Using Social Media

    by Anastasia Goodstein
    June 4, 2007
    i-2b4af7d7ea8fa7ef56fc08b0402e1780-Anastasia Goodstein.jpg
    Anastasia Goodstein

    I remember the first time I watched Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator, a TV series where they snared sexual predators using online venues. It was a train wreck — the kind you can’t keep your eyes off of. These predators were so creepy and so dumb. Some of them were lured into the trap more than once by the “Dateline” decoy. I also remember thinking, “If I was a parent, this would scare the crap out of me.”

    Even before “To Catch a Predator,” I began seeing stories about schools blocking blogging site Xanga. Yep, before MySpace became the media’s target, teens were getting into trouble on Xanga and other sites. The stories were always the same — the media would write a story about how much information teens put online and talk about cyber-bullying causing parents to panic.

    The main source of this panic was fear of stranger-danger. Law enforcement or some other well meaning Internet safety educator would then be brought in to talk to parents. Most of these talks would focus on Internet risks and stress the importance of not posting any personal or revealing information. Parents would go home and talk to their teens, especially girls, and scare them into taking down photos or anything that might lead one of these creepos to hunt them down and show up after school one day.


    The problem with this message is that it’s both fear-based and divorced from reality. When I set out to write Totally Wired, I wanted to write a book for parents that would be a “voice of reason” in the midst of negative headlines and sensational stories about everything teens do that’s wrong or dangerous online. I didn’t want to gloss over any of the negative — I talk about cyber-bullying, hooking up, pornography, and blogrings that are pro-anorexia and bulemia. The dark stuff is in there. But so is the reality: Most teens aren’t talking to strangers online. They’re just socializing with the same friends they see in person at school or met at summer camp.

    Teens are also using technology to express themselves creatively, making their own MySpace layouts and videotaping skits to post on YouTube. They use the web to connect with other teens who share their interests, whether it’s in vegetarianism or videogames. The Internet simply reflects and magnifies what teens have always done offline.

    The biggest myth that has been perpetuated by well meaning law enforcement, Internet safety advocates, and the media is that the Internet is teeming with predators who are waiting for your child to post just enough information so they can find them and abduct them. In “Totally Wired,” I relied on this stat: “Out of the 800,000 kids that are reported missing each year by the Justice Department, only 150 cases involve ‘stereotypical kidnappings,’ in which a child is taken by a stranger, held for ransom, or killed.” Now there is new data from some of the lead researchers in the field that is putting online stranger-danger in even more perspective and clarifying who is really at risk.


    Expert Panel Discusses the Facts

    Last month, the Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Congress invited a group of experts to discuss The Facts About Youth Online Victimization. The panelists were: danah boyd, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and fellow at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Communications; Dr. David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire; Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew Internet & American Life Project; and Dr. Michele Ybarra, the president of Internet Solutions for Kids. As I listened to the panel, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t received more media attention.

    Dr. Finkelhor went through several revealing stats gleaned from law enforcement over the past couple of years about who is being victimized — and it’s not who you would think. The predominant victims of online sex crimes are not young children — they are teens. He also debunked the myth that these seductions involve online predators posing as other children to stage an abduction or assault. Most of these men (80%) were pretty open about their sexual intentions talking to teens who were talking back.

    Who are the teens talking to these men? They’re teens who most likely have been victimized either physically or sexually and/or have a troubled home life. Only 3% of these cases involved an abduction. In 73% of these crimes, teens had met the perpetrator on multiple occasions and have had multiple sexual encounters. In half the cases teens claimed they were “in love” with the adult. In a quarter of the cases, “victims” ran away from home to be with these adults. This is a very different picture of who is at risk than a teen who simply posts their photo and the name of their high school on a MySpace profile.

    That said, I understand that a random abduction — even if the chances are slim it will happen — is still every parent’s worst nightmare. I’m not advocating that it’s OK for kids or teens to put their first and last names, addresses, cell phone numbers or other information online. But I think it’s essential to evaluate the risk realistically and respond proportionately. In order to do this, we need to overhaul the tone and message of Internet safety education being taught at parents’ nights in schools, PTA meetings and other types of community events. We must tone down the fear factor and focus on what teens are really doing online.

    Even when we discuss cyber-bullying, we must put it in perspective. It’s definitely causing lots of drama at school and sometimes can be so severe that it results in lawsuits or expulsions. But most of the time, teens are pretty good at blocking, ignoring or IMing back until the harassment stops or goes away. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about bullying prevention or how to respond; it just means we have to understand how teens view this issue and are responding to it as well.

    danah boyd made a great point on the panel, saying we should invest in virtual outreach to at-risk teens online. Just like youth workers reach out to homeless teens in the real world, we need more mental health advocates in these virtual public spaces who can spot red flags on MySpace profiles or an alarming entry on LiveJournal and post a comment asking if that teen is OK or stage some other kind of intervention.

    I also think any community site that has a large teen audience (especially MySpace and Facebook) should build and promote an online resource area with hotline numbers and links to agencies. There should also be a way to flag other teens’ profiles so a counselor can review it and decide if some sort of intervention is needed. Instead of spending time and money stoking parental fears, we should be engaging in a realistic dialogue about these issues and reaching out to teens who are most at-risk.

    What do you think? Has the media sensationalized the dangers for teens using social media sites? How can that fear and sensational reporting be counterbalanced? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Anastasia Goodstein is the publisher of Ypulse.com, a blog about teen media and marketing, and the author of Totally Wired: What Teens And Tweens Are Really Doing Online. She is also producing the upcoming 2007 Mashup conference in San Francisco on July 16 to 17, and is currently the guest expert on PBS Parents.

    Tagged: security social networking teens
    • Eleni

      Thank you for posting this article. Much appreciated.

    • Julie

      Many thanks for this sane and reasoned article!

    • Matt

      As far a statistics go, I agree and think the media blows up the “internet predator” story to make it seem every other person on the internet is a bad guy. It makes a great story that people will pay attention to. We all know that every other story these days is used by the media to gain ratings, however, I think it would be a huge mistake on our parts to use this as an excuse to completely forget about dangers kids may face online these days. The truth is that kids are contacted online by these predators, and although it may not be as easy and as often as the “To Catch a Predator” show makes it seem, it does happen. While it may be considered by some to be a “small” problem today, with the amount of people using the internet exponentially growing each year it poses to be a much greater problem in the future. I don’t think the government needs to declare a cyber war on all the online predators in the world, but with them declaring June National Internet Safety Month, I don’t think it would hurt to try and educate children and parents of the possible dangers online. I know MySpace has a internet safety site. There are also sites out there like NetSmartz411.org which give parents ideas on ways to monitor their kids and help them stay safer online. Although this story may be used by the media for ratings, we still need to educate people, especially parents and children, that these types of dangers unfortunately exist in our society, and if we do nothing about it they will continue and likely get worse.

    • Hi Matt. I appreciate your comment and concern. I am not advocating that we don’t talk to teens about how to be safe online or to their parents — I give these talks at libraries and schools. I’m just trying to put the discussion in perspective and in proportion with the real risks so parents aren’t even more freaked out than they already are. It’s the “don’t talk to strangers” talk with the caveat that occasionally some of these strangers may pretend they are kids or teens. With older teens, most of them simply ignore, reject or block any adult stranger who is trying to reach them. Even if it’s just for an interview (I know this firsthand).

    • Matt

      I understand your original post focuses on the media, arguing dangers on the net are blown out of proportions and terrify the public. Unfortunately today, providing accurate and factual news stories is not always first on the medias priority list. I would be the first to argue that the media cares more about business than its commitment to public service but that is another issue. I digress. The important issue here, I feel, is the safety of our children on the internet now and in the future. Im not sure I fully understand your comment about teens simply ignore strangers, maybe you could elaborate? I do agree that teens are doing their best to be responsible and are being safer than ever before. But, I think the invincibility factor is at play with online teens. They know they need to be cautious and aware, yet they do it with naivet and sometimes without even realizing what they are doing, such as putting pics of themselves/friends that reveal where they live/go to school. While yes, most teens simply ignore, reject or block any adult stranger who is trying to reach them, there are still those who fall into the trap of building a relationship with people who could be potential predators. I think we both agree that this happens, at least more often than it should. It is my opinion that the best way to attack the child predator problem is through education. I think thats great you help with the education process! Im interested to know what exactly you talk about. Do you speak mostly to parents or to teens? What do you say to alleviate the parental fears or what resources do you provide them with to encourage safer internet practices in their homes? I think the NetSmartz411.org site or CyberTipline would be useful resources to use in your school lectures. I think educating the parents will go a long way to stifling the child predators. Looking forward to hearing more about what you do.

    • Hi Matt. I’ve been speaking to parents as part of promoting this book. I talk about why teens love social networks, texting and other new technologies they have grown up with and how they are essentially doing many of things teens have always done — they’re just now doing them digitally. I talk about how the internet reflects and amplifies what happens in real life. I just do it in a way that’s realistic without being sensational or fear mongering. I list lots of internet safety resources over at the book site – http://www.totallywiredbook.com.

      In their latest research Pew found that 7 percent of all online teens who were contacted by a stranger engaged with them to find out more about that person — stranger could be anyone, not necessarily a predator. Seven percent of all online teens contacted by a stranger say they felt scared or uncomfortable because of the online encounter.

      The reality is that the majority of teens don’t engage with strangers online — they are there to socialize with their friends. Even though teens are posting lots of personal information, it doesn’t mean most of them are naively and innocently talking to strangers who contact them. And the statistics show that just posting revealing personal information (without engaging with a predator) is most likely not going to lead to a random abduction.

      That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to parents or teens about it. It just means there is no reason to panic.

    • Linda Bachmann

      Really fantastic article. I have a few thoughts to share from a few different perspectives. First of all, as the parent of teens, I know how key this online communication is to teens — facebook is simply how kids communicate with each other. That said, there still seems to be a naivety about who reads what, hurtful, inappropriate comments and the impact of this new era of “cyberbullying.” Changing someone else’s profile picture, hurtful posts, exclusion and downright bullying is reaching new heights online. Like other lifeskillls, kids have to be taught how to finesse this era of online civility.
      That said, other insights come from my role at Connect with Kids, where our mission is to help parents understand the issues that our kids are going through. We speak to parents all the time — and time and again, parents have left sessions awed and somewhat bewildered by this new online world our kids are so comfortable within. Connect with Kids CEO Stacey DeWitt often leads her discussions with the perspective that although our kids may know more about navigating the Internet, parents know more about life and what their activities may lead to — positive and negative. It’s amazing how many parents are unaware and if Internet dangers are a bit sensationalized, I do believe that more awareness is better than ignorance.
      If parents are interested in ways to start a conversation with their kids about all kinds of somewhat challenging and uncomfortable topics — from the Internet world to sex and drugs — I hope that they’ll check out our free resources and join our online parenting community at http://www.connectwithkids.com.

    • I have tremendous respect for the researchers and methodologies behind the reports cited in the Facts About Youth Online Victimization forum, and agree with much of their findings.

      However, the research looked at only one segment of criminal activity � cases where the victims had online interactions with their predators – something these four researchers very carefully and repeatedly pointed out.

      We are in no position yet to jump to conclusions about the realities of internet risks for youth, or the drivers of online youth victimization.

      Keep in mind that the cases studied in the cited research are cases where the victim knew how they had come into contact with their abuser and had ongoing online interactions with them.

      This represents only one segment within the sexual abuse segment which also has to be reviewed within the larger online abuse of youth landscape that includes other forms of exploitation like ID theft, scams, robbery etc. (Note: some of the research cited covers other areas, particularly bullying, but the focus of the forum and most of their research was on sexual exploitation).

      Even staying within the subset of sexual crimes against minors, the topic is very complex. But let me try to give a quick overview of a couple of other internet enabled sexual exploitation of youth segments that were expressly not included in their research.

      � Many victims and their parents will not know that online factors came into play to make them a target, yet many of these assaults aren�t �random�; the child was found through online information.

      In these cases the perpetrator probably never communicated with the child online. They simply used the internet as a search tool to find a victim that appealed to them � physically and geographically.

      In some cases abusers do their own online searches – it may be they came across a proud grandmother site with photos posted of a grandchild; a child�s social networking site that had their photo � or their sibling�s photo, or a friends photo; it could be that the elementary school �honored� the child on the school�s website (See my guidelines for school websites); or a sports team listed players, game schedules and team photos. They key�s were that enough information could be gleaned to locate the child.

      In other cases, predators can look through virtual catalogs of children already compiled by �data brokers� and simply select a child of interest, within their geographic proximity.

      � There is a large child sexual slave trade that leverages the internet. We may want to believe this is a problem in �other� countries, but according to FBI data more than 100,000 children in the US are in the forced sex slave industry. The average age of these victims is 11 years old.

      As a 13 year technology industry veteran specializing in tracking internet abuse and driving consumer safety I’ve seen first hand the failure of internet companies to effectively track or report the abuse that occurs in their products and services, and the lack of awareness of consumers to the types of crimes being committed, and the potential internet connections. This is a serious topic that must be carefully understood in all of it’s manifestations before conclusions are drawn.

      The abuse cases where victims understand the internet connection and that get reported to law enforcement is only the tip of the iceberg.

      I’ve written the award winning book Look both ways help protect your family on the internet published by Microsoft Press to help guide consumers in understanding the landscape of internet risk, get an understanding of the potential risks with key internet services, and learn how to establish a framework for honest discussion about internet safety with family, friends and colleagues. I also have extensive content for consumers on my website Look-Both-Ways.com and a place for consumers to ask their safety questions.


    • hi i m aqeel

    • Why is that you don’t think the online predators are an issue? Millions of kids who MySpace and various of other accounts online, with parents who sit back and never monitor their children’s online activities. You have to proactive, especially in this online world. Pedophiles groom their crafts online, you think it’s overblown. It’s people like you that allow pedophiles to be treated like royalty, when their wrong for doing what they do. Maybe it’s because you’re not a parent that you have these blinders on. This is why I don’t watch PBS, because you folks seem to think pedophiles aren’t an issue. Please, it’s bigger than you folks think.

    • Michelle Eastman

      I think that this article would mean alot to alot of teens and their parent. Most kids these days think that they know it all. Some parents even try to tell their kids not to talk to strangers on the internet because it can get you into alot of trouble. Please dont talk to people you do not know on the internet i have had experience in that subject before. Be safe


    • wow now that i have read this i know for sure i will not give out personal info as well as go on thoes kinds of chat rooms

    • Lily

      This is informitive and interesting! I am felling more confidant on the subjuct!

    • wow this is realy informative and i will use this knowledge in the future when i see others using thoes websites and chat rooms while giving out their personal info.

    • The site provides information regarding struggling teens. They need proper treatment. There are number of boot camps for these teens. Governments also think about these teens.


    • The given article is informative to gain good knowledge about troubled teens. I also gained more information related to troubled teens and the specialized places for troubled teens

    • Treatment center for teens plays an important role in the recovery of troubled teen’s problems as they need special supervision and individualized attention with extensive care and therapy programs. Center helps in prevention of addiction and teenage psychological, behavioral, and mental disorders.

    • Parents always worried about their children’s proper education and behavior. They must identify the school which is fit and good for their teens.

    • Name

      6 years later this article seems to be completely wrong.
      As someone who speaks in schools on a regular basis i dont believe you would have been able to forseee the explosion of involvement with social media at the time this was authored. However, time has shown that this danger was not overblown at all. They dont defriend or block. it has gotten ugly and I deal with it on a daily basis.

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