Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sex, Kids, and the Internet: Myths and Misconceptions

Like a number of people, the lonely libertarian has been drawn in to Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator Series.” It’s the sort of apolitical show that defies political boundaries- No one likes child predators, no one is in any hurry to defend them, and everyone can celebrate them getting busted.

Some of the men caught by Dateline seemed to be your stereotypical predators- 40 and 50 year old men looking for 12 and 13 year old girls and boys, the sort we’re all happy to have in jail. But then there were the other men. There was the one guy in his twenties who seemed more than a little bit slow. Of course he shouldn’t have been showing up to meet a 15 year-old, but I just wondered if he’d have been equally happy showing up to meet an 18 year-old, or 21 year-old who was equally as willing. Then there was the 20 year-old marine reserve that showed up to meet a 14 year old. Yeah, he most certainly needed a good smacking, but to call him a predator seemed to be a bit of a stretch. If a 19 year-old high school senior showed up at the house of a 14 year-old high school freshman would we- and should we- be as quick to brand him a sex offender for life?

Then you read the articles: Reading this MSNBC piece, you get the idea that this is all somehow connected; Child molesters and child pornographers who deal with children as young as infants are thrown together with statutory rapists, older men who solicit teenage girls, and the all-encompassing statistic of 1 in 5 children online being subject to sexual solicitation. For the uninitiated, as many parents often are, the picture seems to be that MySpace, Chat Rooms, and Instant Messenger are the dark alleyways of the internet, and your children enter at their own peril.

This picture is inaccurate. On one hand these inaccuracies must be taken with a grain of salt- this is the mainstream media, which tends to report almost everything with a “sky is falling” mentality. And the media warning us of yet another danger at our doorstep is hardly cause for alarm. The problem here is that these misconceptions and over generalizations can actually have tragic consequences, as the story perpetuated in the media is taken as unquestioned fact. There are issues regarding kids and the internet, and yes, predators. But without the complete picture, and without the appropriate context, the supposed solutions we’ve been offered vary from unhelpful to downright dangerous.

These issues will be examined in three parts. The first part will deal with the nature of sex offenses themselves, and why it is imperative to distinguish various sex offenses rather than lumping every offender into the category of sexual predator. The second part will examine the media (and parents) lack of understanding of the real issues of sex and the internet. And the final part will offer actual, realistic solutions for parents and children.

Part I : Who Are Sex Offenders Anyway?

Fans of Bill O’Reilly know that the television and radio host’s favorite subject is child sex offenders; capturing them, punishing them, and bashing the judges and media figures who let them off too lightly. And most Americans are familiar with their local sex offender registries- the ones where you can go and find all the sex offenders living in your neighborhood. Despite MSNBC’s casual interchange of terms, most of us can recognize that there are vast differences between some of the individuals lumped together as sex offenders. At least, most of us can recognize these differences if they are shown to us. This of course can be difficult when sex offender registries list offenders only by reference to the law they violated, with no explanation of what that law actually was. And the media tends to exasperates these difficulties.

First, when it comes to children, there is no gray area, and all sex crimes are crimes of violence. Period.

But when it comes to teenagers, there clearly is a moral grey area. We do have the concept of the age of consent, but this is ultimately a legal creation, not a strict moral absolute. Obviously, this is where the term “statutory rape” comes from. Of course, there is no problem with creating ages of consent, and states should go about creating such ages that reflect the general values of their citizens. The problem with these grey areas is in regards to the labels we use and the stigmas we create. Whether it’s legal or not, a 40 something year old man meeting a high school student on the internet for a sexual liaison is creepy. But something is not quite right where in one instance that 40 something year old man is just a creep, but the same situation with the same girl, only a year or two prior results in the man being labeled a sex offender and a menace to society for the remainder of his life.

Pedophiles look to children and only to children, and should be locked away as violent sex offenders. But those who look to teenagers do so for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons may be utterly evil, but other reasons may be less concerning. And more importantly, when you’re talking about teenagers, you’re talking about a group of people who are quite capable of giving consent, whatever the law may say. We all may have a serious problem with a 40 something year old man meeting a 15 year old girl for sex, but we can also recognize that situation as completely different from anything involving an 8 year-old.

This distinction becomes even more important when it comes to the internet because there is a major distinction between protecting teenagers from their own stupid choices and protecting kids from predators and child molesters.

All of the men caught on Dateline deserve the national shaming they’ve received- I’m unsure whether or not they all deserve jail time, although some of them clearly do. So long as Dateline skirts about in these grey areas, they will continue to attract statutory rapists, and continue to garner big ratings. The truth is, there is probably no shortage of men out there who would show up to have sex with teenage girls. Given how often these sorts of things probably happen without the TV, and without the arrests, it’s sort of easy to understand why people wouldn’t be deterred. The real issue when it comes to teenagers having sex- with anyone- is not anything about these supposed predators, but rather the teenagers themselves, and the decisions they make.

Part II: Just What Are These Internet Problems Anyhow?

One thing everyone seems to forget about the internet is that it is not a specific place, like a park or a dark alley. The internet is a reflection of the real world, almost a sort of mirror. And no evidence has ever been given that the internet is somehow more dangerous than the real world. In fact, given that the internet involves no physical contact, one could argue that the internet is in fact safer than the real world. Regardless, the point is that the internet is just another medium, and it needs to be understood as such. Demonizing the internet as a whole, or demonizing vast social networks such as MySpace makes little sense. Once again, the internet doesn’t create society; it only reflects what already exists.

MSNBC's survey of attitudes and feelings about the internet is revealing. The following is question four of their survey: “Have you ever had a scary online experience, or an online experience that has made you feel uncomfortable in any way?”

Now before you think about the question, replace the word “online” with “high school.” Have you ever had a scary high school experience, or a high school experience that has made you feel uncomfortable in any way? Or to think about it another way, have you ever gone through what every teenager goes through? The inane nature of the question boggles the mind. Just as stupid is the question about hiding internet activity from your parents. Once again, apply that question to everyday teenage life outside the internet. The entire survey demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what the internet actually is, and translates general teenage anxiety (the subject of popular music for over half a century) into some sort of new “internet problem.”

Perhaps the worst of the war on the internet come from the misuse and abuse of statistics. Almost everyone has heard the following statistic by now: 1 in 5 children are sexually solicited on the internet. Of course, few have looked into what this actually means, and that 1 in 5 number is bandied about to support the theory that the internet is a dangerous place. The number actually comes from a June 2000 study by the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children about online victimization.

The 1 in 5 number is correct (actually, 19%), but that number in and of itself is not a complete story. First, 77% of those solicited in the survey were of high school age (14-17). 48% of these solicitations came from other children under the age of 18. Only 4% of solicitations could be determined to have come from adults over the age of 25. (20% came from those ages 18-25 and 27% were undetermined.)

Of these sexual solicitations, respondents reported having little or no reaction in 75% of them. In other words, only 4.75% (25% of the original 19% who were solicited) of all the children surveyed reported they were bothered by a sexual solicitation. When it is taken into account that over half (54%) of the sexual solicitations that caused distress came from other children under the age of 18, the picture becomes even clearer. The largest concern for kids on the internet is not adult predators, but other kids.

Yes, the internet is not like the real world, in that sexual solicitations are far more easily made via the internet. And yes, it is much more likely for a youth to be sexually solicited via the internet, than through some sort of real world interaction. But given that this stems from the nature of the internet as an impersonal communicative medium, the real question is whether or not there actually is a problem.

Pre-teenagers being sexually solicited on the internet is a cause for concern, but the answer to that concern is more parental control and involvement. Most parents do not let their 10 year olds go gallivanting around town at night, and it makes little sense to give them that same freedom to gallivanting about the internet. For teenagers, the question becomes at what age they are to be given unfettered internet access. If you have a responsible 15 year old, who is the sort who doesn’t need a curfew, unfettered internet access is probably not a problem. For the less responsible teenagers, you may have more thinking to do. The point is, you may be sexually solicited if you use the internet, and the issue for parents is to determine at what age their child is capable of dealing with this.

Although this study, and the 1 in 5 statistic, have become almost common knowledge, the conclusions at the end of the report spell out one of the most important facts: The myth of the internet predator. Yes children and teenagers need to take precautions, and yes there can be harassment over the internet. However, the notion that child molesters have moved from the playground to the computer has little basis in reality.

Part III: What To Do (And What Not To Do) About the Sex, Kids, and the Internet

Between the War on MySpace and “To Catch a Predator” it’s not surprising that parents fear for their children’s safety. And while overreaction does no good, that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t take the appropriate steps to, well, parent their children.

First let’s be clear. No new laws are needed. Regardless of any parenting decisions, tragedy can always occur- Someone could abduct your child off the street- Or your child could be hit by a car or struck by lightning. Parents need to realize first and foremost that there is a limit to how much they can do to protect their children. Just because some kids get hit by cars doesn’t mean you need to keep your children locked in the house, and just because a very small number of kids have suffered because of the internet does not mean that you need to keep your kids off the internet. (And in the same vein, if you know your kid runs in the road without looking, don’t let him out of your site when he’s playing in the front yard- or if your 12 year-old daughter is irresponsible, don’t give her complete access to the internet without your supervision or guidance- or if your 16 year old daughter is a bad judge of character, don’t let her meet her 20 year old friend over the internet unless your there with her.)

Let’s look at the facts: I can think of no reported cases in which a child or teenager was abducted based upon information posted on the internet. And while arranging a meeting via the internet can be a cause for concern, the actual problem there is, is not the internet, but the actions of the teenager in arranging that meeting. Maintaining some control and some knowledge over what your kids do and where they go is a part of parenting that has nothing to do with the internet. And when it comes to sexual solicitations via the internet ... well, given that half of these come from fellow teenagers, and that very few of these solicitations have any effect upon their recipient, the issues here seems to be 1) teaching everyone appropriate standards of behavior for the internet, and 2) limiting internet access for children of the age where a sexual solicitation in and of itself is disturbing.

So where do we go from here? First, the unhelpful advice. MSNBC offers a "Where's Waldo" of whats wrong with this MySpace profile. The idea for parents is to point out all the instances of TMI (too much information) that may be putting their children in danger. This is a waste of time. The most overblown aspect of the protecting your kids on the internet is the notion that you should not post personal information on the web. Once again, there are no reported cases of children or teenagers being abducted via information found on the internet. Posting AIM names, cell phone numbers, school activities, jobs, and hobbies is not going to get anyone abducted. Of course, there are plenty of common sense rules to follow. You probably don’t want your teenagers posting when they are going to be home alone. And there may be other personal information that you as a parent may want to keep off the internet.

The other stupid advice is that regarding photographs. Kids love pictures, and kids love their digital cameras, and in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with posting pictures on the web. Of course, you may want to monitor what your child is posting. Pictures of your daughter and her 14 year old friends are okay. Pictures of your daughter and her 14 year old friends in their underwear are probably not a good idea. Once again, this is all about parenting, and all about the examples and the rules you set for your children.

More bad advice is absolute rules when it comes to the internet. Given the opportunity, most kids will likely defy those absolute rules. Don’t set a “no MySpace” policy for your teenagers. I don’t think anyone was ever hurt after just getting a MySpace account. And don’t set a “no meeting people via the internet” rule. The massive success of internet dating sites has given legitimacy to the notion of the internet as a medium for finding love, romance, or friendship. Kids meeting via the internet is not a concern. Kids meeting over the internet with no boundaries and no parental involvement could well be a concern.

Teenagers should know the basic rules of meeting people over the internet: Tell someone where you’re going and who your meeting. Meet in a public place. And most importantly, use good judgment. If you’re a parent, maybe you want to meet whomever it is your child is meeting.

What is most important to remember is that the internet itself is a lot safer than the real world. The chances of your child being hurt while sitting at home on their computer are slim to none. As for exposure to unwanted and explicit material, this is a question for parents themselves to decide. There is no one correct formula for determining how much access and how much privacy your child and teenager should have when it comes to the internet. Parents have different moral standards, and kids themselves can very different. The one rule of thumb should be that internet rules should reflect rules in the real world. What movies, what television, and what books do you let your child read? How much freedom are they given in their social lives? The internet rules parents lay down should reflect these other rules. And these same sorts of rules should apply when it comes to internet meetings.

Whether it’s “To Catch a Predator” or the MySpace scares, the biggest internet problem seems to be 13-14-15 year olds making stupid decisions. The thing is, stupid decisions in one small part of life are usually reflective of numerous other stupid decisions. If you’re a parent today, the internet should be the least of your worries. If you can’t say for certain what you’re 14 or 15 year-old does every weekend, then your teenagers mysterious MySpace profile may well be the least of your concerns. The real problem here is parenting, and the decisions made by parents. (And how these decisions impact on their children.) No, you can’t control your kids’ life, or keep them locked away. But you can raise kids to make smart decisions and not to put themselves in danger. The world may be different, and the internet scare may have intensified, but the real issue is the same issue of parenting that human society has grappled with for centuries.

The other issue may be one that sits well with social conservatives and one that liberals may be loathe to address- the general coarsening of culture and a society which has become more sexually permissive. Maybe you agree with this, maybe you don’t, but it’s hard to fault the internet for exposing younger generations to a certain degree of sexual explicitness without faulting society itself for becoming more sexually permissive. Personally, the lonely libertarian is not all that worried, or all that concerned. Sex in and of itself is not a cause for concern, and parents play a far more important role in children’s lives than the media ever will. But there is a certain logic in the notion that when everything is sexually acceptable for an 18-year old, there is going to be a certain amount of spillover to younger age groups, particularly in an internet age in which age itself has been rendered less and less relevant.

Update, 5/18/06 @ 3:15 PM: Last night's "To Catch a Predator" invoked less of the lonely libertarian's sympathy than past week's episodes. Last night there was a 23 year-old and a 22 year-old meeting a 15 year-old and a 14 year-old. To reiterate, they deserve a good smack upside the head, and the national shaming they recieved on dateline. But to label these guys as sex offenders for life ... I'm just not so sure. The real kicker came at the end of the night, when we were told that the reason for these shows was a warning for parents about the dangers for children lurking on the internet. What was amazing was that for all the advice given, no one mentioned that these "predators" would have no where to go if young teenagers didn't invite them over! The best advice, "If you're 14 years old, don't invite older men over for sex!" was not even mentioned.


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