Report divides opinion on online risks for children

Fri, Jan 30, 2009, 00:00

Risks are complex and multifaceted, a new study claims, but no more so than offline, reports Mike Musgrove

ARE YOUR kids safe online? A recent report about this sensitive subject is stirring up controversy.

The study, by Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet Society, finds that it’s far more likely that children will be bullied by their peers than approached by an adult predator online.

The 278-page document cites studies showing that sexual solicitation of minors by adults via the web appears to be declining. “The image presented by the media of an older male deceiving and preying on a young child does not paint an accurate picture,” reads one conclusion. “The risks minors face online are complex and multifaceted and are in most cases not significantly different than those they face offline.”

In other words, children are about as savvy online as they are offline, said Ernie Allen, president of the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, which contributed to the report.

“The vast majority of kids in this country have heard the messages about the risks online and are basically dealing with them as a nuisance as a fact of life, and aren’t particularly vulnerable,” he said. “This report should not be read as saying there are not adults out there doing this.”

But some US state attorney generals are upset about a report that, they argue, lulls parents into a false sense of security. South Carolina’s Henry McMaster said its findings were “as disturbing as they are wrong”.

“Rapid technological advances with mobile phones, PDAs, video gaming systems and online social networking sites place our children more at risk from predators than at any time before,” he wrote in a letter posted online. “Our arrest rate is only limited by the amount of resources.”

The US department of commerce and the Federal Communications Commission have been assigned roles to begin online safety awareness programmes and evaluate technologies that filter inappropriate content away from children. The Obama administration is to appoint the first chief technology officer, and online safety is likely to be a priority.

However, there’s no easy fix for the risks that children face on the web, the report says. The Berkman Centre’s internet safety technical task force reviewed 40 technologies designed to protect children online, but endorsed none.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Centre for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, has been critical of the report because its expenses were underwritten by MySpace, Google and Microsoft. “Surprise, surprise,” he said. “They pay for a study, and it says there’s no problem. It was kind of a brilliant PR move.”

Palfrey said that as a researcher and as a father, he finds this criticism perverse. “The research is consistent, every single study says the same thing,” he said. “What possible agenda could I have to tell anything other than the truth?”

Parents’ concerns about internet predators are sometimes overblown, said Parry Aftab of, but it’s nearly impossible to tell how overblown they are. When quizzed about online activity, kids don’t usually tell the truth if parents are around.

Aftab would like to see law agencies have a standardised entry on their crime reporting paperwork, indicating whether social networking sites, texting or online games were used in the commission of a crime in which a child has been victimised.

– ( LA Times/Washington Postservice)