Remember when your mom told you that you couldn’t have a MySpace because it was too dangerous?
Well, that reasoning is partially wrong, according to a new report that found that minors may not be as susceptible to sexual solicitation in the cyber world as many people think.
Minors who use social networking websites are far more susceptible to bullying than to sexual predators, according to a report released last week by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force.
The task force was organized by 49 state attorneys general to examine sexual solicitation of children online.
“What one finds online is very much related to risks found in real life,” said Jon Palfrey, law professor at Harvard University and chair of the task force. “For young people there is not much difference between the two – these have converged.“
Just like any public place in the world, social networks have risks involved, but social networks do not seem to increase that risk.
Online predators do not have greater access to minors on the Internet. At a distance you can make contact but to cause physical harm you would have to meet up with them in person, Palfrey said.
“A key fact is that the rise of Internet has not made it more dangerous for sexual predation,” he said. “It doesn’t mean kids are more likely to be sexually assaulted. Maybe they have more access to make contact.“
The task force is a group of 29 Internet businesses, nonprofits, academic professionals and technology companies, including MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo! and AOL. Led by the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University, the group of experts conducted a synthesis of existing research and investigated technologies that are or could be used to protect minors online.
The report identified risks that minors face online, and examined technologies that can be used to protect online network users. The report says that, “much innovation is [already] occurring at leading social network sites themselves.“
The risks that minors encounter online are not significantly different than those encountered offline, the report says. Bullying and harassment are the most frequent threats that minors encounter.
Among other findings are that the Internet increases availability of illegal content but does not necessarily increase minors‘ exposure to it. Social networking sites are more likely to be grounds for peer-to-peer harassment, not solicitation and exposure to illegal content. This is because minors use the social sites mainly to maintain existing relationships.
All minors are not equally at risk online. Those who are more at risk than others already participate in dangerous activities. Family life is a better predictor of who is at risk rather than the use of social networking sites.
“In the virtual world, we found that minors at risk tend to be without parental supervision, like in the real world,” said task force member John Cardillo, chief executive of Sentinel Tech. “We know who the predators are going after so we can adjust the technology to match.“
Sentinel Tech Holding keeps databases of registered and convicted sex offenders. Their monitoring tool is used on sites like MySpace to intercept sex offenders at registration and keep them off or go back and historically search offenders.
“We use over 100 points of identification on them – name, date of birth, tattoos, scars, marks,” Cardillo said. “We also have an electronic monitoring tool that we don’t disclose because we don’t want to give bad guys a sense of what we do.“
The task force solicited technology proposals from 40 submissions and concluded that there is no one technological approach to protect users. Instead, technological solutions must be multi-faceted.
“Many technologies available to kids are safer but no one technology can solve all problems,” Palfrey said. “So we urge companies to use different mixes of technologies.“
The next step in online security is finding ways to monitor and protect minors who are already in the higher-risk categories. The report suggests greater efforts between private companies and law enforcement as well as minor and parental education.
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