02/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

OMG & POS Computer Predation Overstated

There may be less sex on the internet than you thought.

The latest internet big scare has finally been exposed: the alleged danger of cyber-net predation is largely the product of the overactive imaginations of puritanical hysterics rather than a true crime wave sweeping the nation and endangering our kids.

That isn't to say that parents shouldn't be concerned: the internet is a dangerous device lurking in homes, much akin to a loaded firearm sitting unsupervised in an unlocked drawer, coaxing the underaged and curious to ignore risk and give it a try. But, to steal a catch phrase: the internet doesn't commit crime, users do.

Internet danger is overstated. As the New York Times' authoritative cyber-reporter Brad Stone wrote in today's print editions stated that adult initiated a Harvard examination of "sexual solicitation of children online has concluded that there really is not a significant problem...The findings ran counter to popular perceptions of online dangers as reinforced by depictions in the news media like NBC's To Catch a Predator series."

The Times story matches the anecdotal data gathered by consultants at my company who provide cyber security for families with teenagers in New York and the suburbs. The biggest dangers we routinely discover are adolescents discussing bad things--sex, drugs and violence--with their peers. We know that perverted adults occasionally slip into these conversations either posing as teenagers or identifying teens looking for adventure with someone over aged. But the primary problem is amongst kids.

The Times account was based on the "Final Report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force to the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking of State Attorneys General of the United States" released today by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

The report acknowledged that sexual predation remains a concern but states the image of innocent teens being hoodwinked by Lotharios on every street is overblown.

"This research found that cases typically involved post-pubescent youth who were aware that they were meeting an adult male for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity...Youth report sexual solicitation of minors by minors more frequently."

Most of my professional experience involving sexual predation involves undercover stings where some pervert starts up a conversation with a willing "teenager" who turns out to be an undercover cop or agent.

The kids we discovered cyber chatting with adults were also sneaking out after dark in places where they could meet adults in the flesh. Computer chat is a symptom not a cause. The report went on to state: "The risks minors face online are complex and multifaceted and are in most cases not significantly different than those they face offline." And although sex sells television programs and even funding for academic studies, the starkest conclusion was bereft of titillation: "Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline."

The report was prepared by a task force of academics and industry experts pursuant to a request by the "Attorneys General Multi-State Working Group" on computer issues including social networking, sexual predation, exposure to pornography and related issues. The AGs seemed to have jumped on the recurring band wagon of "the world is going to hell in a hand basket" and "our teenagers are in imminent danger" that have, over the ages featured "Professor Harold Hill" warning of the imminent doom to teens due to shooting pool, Elvis Presley's swiveling hips, bikini bathing suits, rap music, backwards baseball caps and most recently the internet.

I don't mean to be glib: cyber-crime exists. One child lured away from home on the internet by an adult is one too many and such crimes should be vigorously investigated and prosecuted. But before ripping out the DSL connection, people should read the Berkman report.
The kind of things my guys see on teenagers' computers involves discussions of inappropriate behavior amongst schoolmates. Yes that includes sex, but it also includes drugs and other criminal activity.

When a parent hires us to examine the computer of their suspect child we frequently see pornography. Often times that results in over- or under-reaction.

The over reaction is "I don't want my 15 year-old son seeing naked women." My reaction: Get over it. Fifteen year old boys are curious about nudity."

The under-reaction can be "Ah, it's normal, 15 year old boys are curious about nudity." Before I's banished to eat my own words, my concern is what kind of pornography is the kid accessing: "T&A" (to use a technical term) is one thing, but if the child seems to be obsessing on deviant behavior that may be a cause for concern. The internet is filled with sites that might lead a teenager to believe that "no means yes," that most sex partners get a thrill from forced activity and that there is no place in society for monogamy. Those are clearly dangerous messages.

To quote from the report: "Parents and caregivers should: educate themselves about the Internet and the ways in which their children use it, as well as about technology in engaged and involved in their children's Internet use; be conscious of the common risks youth face to help their children understand and navigate the technologies; be attentive to at-risk minors in their community and in their children's peer group; and recognize when they need to seek help from others."

What my company tells parents is that curiosity is a great thing and should be encouraged.
We say: Kids need to be watched. A teenager and a computer behind a closed door is a dangerous combination. Place the machine where you can take the occasional glance at what they are accessing, what they are emailing and with who they are chatting. The option of taking the machine away is gone--homework requires internet research and computer printout assignments. (BTW if you catch the kid typing "POS" that means Parent Over Shoulder," an instruction to clean up the cyber chat.)

If you are concerned, install software to track the child's traffic. If you can't do it, hire someone who can.

The Attorneys General, Harvard and I agree, the internet can be dangerous but so can a lot of modern life. Unless you are becoming Amish, before you burn the mouse cord do some research, face the facts and react in a measured responsible manner. The easiest thing is to ask your kid to show you what he/she is doing on the internet. Don't come across as Big Brother, just say, "You spend so much time on that machine, there must be something that might interest me. Can you teach me?"

Dialogue can be a beautiful thing.