Study: Online Bullies Bigger Threat Than Predators

    January 22, 2009
    WebProNews Staff

Sometimes we get so caught up with hunting down a remote few monsters, we forget about the gangs of gremlins lurking next door. A controversial new study from the Internet Safety Technical Task Force suggests minors face greater dangers from their peers than from predators.

“Minors face risks online, just as they do in any other public space in which people congregate,” according to the report, based on research and analysis from 49 state attorneys general, safety experts and representatives from Facebook, MySpace, and AT&T, all under the direction of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Study: Online Bullies Bigger Threat Than Predators

“These risks include harassment, bullying, sexual solicitation, and exposure to problematic and illegal content. These risks are not radically different in nature or scope than the risks minors have long faced offline.”

On the eve of the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Child Online Protection Act, the report bemoans an air of “moral panic” from parents and lawmakers, fueled by a perception that minors are in constant danger of sexual predation. The authors take issue with widely reported statistics that as much as 20 percent of minors have admitted being sexually solicited online. Further examination reveals the majority of solicitations came from other minors and often was nothing more than teasing.

In light of reports on the popularity of “sexting,” the practice of sending nude or explicit photos of oneself to peers via mobile phone that has led to some teens being charged with trafficking and possession of child pornography, the report seems spot on in regard to generally persistent self-destructive teen behavior.

The objections to the report, though, are not off base. By downplaying the threat, argued Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, it lessens the progress made in improving online safety. Corbett relies on his experience to paint a very real threat—a threat that involves HIV, duct tape, rope, and 183 predator arrests in the past four years.

“I believe this report is incredibly misleading and significantly lessens the progress we have made in implementing safety techniques for children using the Internet,” Corbett said. “Giving parents a false sense of security about their children’s safety online is dangerous, especially when thousands of predators are still trolling the Internet seeking victims.”

Others have been quick to note the vested interests related to the study; Facebook’s and MySpace’s involvement immediately arouses suspicion. The suggested move forward is the development of industry standards for better age verification, but there is little agreement on the method or the real efficacy of any proposed solution. 

Both sides have a point and it’s likely both sides are right. This isn’t by any stretch a black and white issue. While kids face the dangers they have always faced, the Internet gives expanded opportunity to motive. Bullies, jerks, perverts all have easier access to the vulnerable, and enjoy that access from comfortable seats in their own houses.

To the extent that perception is reality, widespread media coverage of online dangers—fear sells, fear motivates, fear especially clouds the senses of groups—and popular shows like “To Catch a Predator” perhaps create a sense of heightened and exaggerated “moral panic.”

Study: Online Bullies Bigger Threat Than Predators
George Gerbner

The study seems to draw on George Gerbner’s Mean World Syndrome proposition, which posits that violent-laden media content—think, murder mysteries, leading, bleeding news stories—creates a perception among viewers that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Gerbner discovered that people who watch a lot of TV tended to think the world was a scary and unforgiving place and that those who watched less TV were able to “more accurately assess their vulnerability to violence.” 

Gerbner’s—and the Task Force’s—somewhat Pollyanna viewpoint comes with an obvious and irrefutable rebuttal: There are bad people in the world who seek to do bad things to other (presumably innocent) people.

Preparing kids for and educating parents about—that is, not frightening them or inducing “moral panic”—the mean world unknowns as well as the mean world of gym class is always a good idea. The Boy Scout motto suddenly becomes remarkably elegant and apropos as a guideline, no software, application, or scare-tactics needed.