Does the increased use of social networking sites by children lead to increased risk? Concern about online predators and pornography has led some politicians and law enforcement officials to call for unreasonable restrictions on public access to these sites.
But is the perception of increased risk accurate? How much of the public discussion of these trends is myth, and how much is fact? Two recent studies suggest that many fears are overblown.
The Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire recently released a study that found that unwanted online solicitations are down from 19% in 1999 to 13% today — a decline that is taking place despite the rising popularity of social networking sites.
Of the unwanted solicitations that were received, a significant number (43%) came from other minors, not from adults.
A separate study of MySpace by Dr. Larry D. Rosen at Cal State found that only 7% (1 in 14) of those teens interviewed were ever approached by anyone on MySpace with a sexual intent. Nearly all of them simply ignored the person and blocked him from their page.
But in the face of this tempered analysis, legislators are still pushing for unreasonable restrictions. The Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), which has been re-introduced in the House and Senate, would cut funding to public schools and libraries unless they block access to social networking sites. Meanwhile, some state Attorneys General have been pushing for stricter age verification that will in all likelihood have little or no effect.
Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, says that attempts to block all social networking sites are likewise unworkable and undesirable, since under the current definition, sites as useful and diverse as Wikipedia, CBSNews, and Flickr would fall into that category.
Age verification is another unworkable solution, according to Thierer. As he points out in a recent paper, all the existing methods for verifying age are unreliable and easily circumvented. The danger with age verification solutions is that they may lead parents to a false sense of security.
The solution, says Thierer, is not stricter controls, but the same things that have helped defend children in the offline world: education, effective law enforcement, and healthy adult supervision.