Technology alone 'won't assure youth safety on Internet'
By Glenn Chapman
January 15, 2009
A high-profile task force formed last year to study dangers young people face on the Internet has found that fears of sexual predators are overblown and that technology alone won't keep children safe.
Family, education, and government policy are key components of reducing risks for children, according to Internet Safety Technical Task Force findings to be discussed Wednesday at a Congressional Internet Caucus Fifth Annual State of the Net Conference in Washington, D.C.
"We have concluded that there is no silver bullet technical solution to online child safety concerns," wrote Adam Thierrer of The Progress & Freedom Foundation, which was on the task force.
"Technology can only supplement - it can never supplant - education and mentoring."
Obama's pledge to appoint a "chief technical officer" for the United States means that the White House intends to take an active role in online safety, the report concludes.
"This report is being released at a time of dynamic change," says an executive summary in the report, released by Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
"There has been a sea change in the political leadership of the country following the recent election of president-elect (Barack) Obama."
While studies indicate that as many as one in five minors are sexually solicited online, about 90 percent of those indecent proposals are made by peers or older youths and not by adults, according to the report.
"The image presented by the media of an older male deceiving and preying on a young child does not paint an accurate picture of the nature of the majority of sexual solicitations and Internet-initiated offline encounters," the report states.
"Of particular concern are the sexual solicitations between minors and the frequency with which online-initiated sexual contact resembles statutory rape rather than other models of abuse."
Many acts labeled "solicitation online" are harassment or teasing, and more than two-thirds of the time there is no effort to arrange real-world meetings.
The percentage of online youths that say they have been solicited sexually on the Internet dropped to 13 percent in 2006 from 19 percent in 2000, according to figures cited in the report.
"Youth typically ignore or deflect solicitations without experiencing distress," the report said.
"Social network sites do not appear to have increased the overall risk of solicitation. Chat rooms and instant messaging are still the dominant place where solicitations occur."
Girls ages 14 through 17 are the most common targets of sexually suggestive contacts online.
Children being abused in the real world are most at risk online. Generally, ages 15 to 17 are considered prime years for children to engage in reckless online behavior.
Risk for children appears more correlated to his or her "psychosocial" profile than a particular Internet technology platform, the study finds.
"One of the key findings of the report is that kids do not differentiate between their offline lives and their online lives," US telecom giant and task force member AT&T said in a letter included with the report.
"Many of the techniques that we have used to address problems in the offline world have applicability online. While the Internet is a new frontier, it is not completely foreign territory."
While concerns are expressed about the chances of youths stumbling across pornography online, younger children report they more often encounter nudity off the Internet.
Difficult home environments and poor relationships with parents make it more likely a child will find trouble online, the study concludes.
"Even with deployment of the best tools and technologies available to jumpstart the process of enhancing safety for minors online, there is no substitute for a parent, caregiver, or other responsible adult actively guiding and supporting a child in safe Internet usage," the report finds.
"Even the best technologies should be only part of a broader solution to keeping minors safer online."
The report expresses "cautious optimism" about technology crafted to keep adult predators from playing in children zones on the Internet.
"The report recognizes that while technology has a role to play, it must be integrated into a larger set of solutions that includes all societal sectors that have a stake in protecting our children online," said the Progress & Freedom Foundation, which was part of the task force.
Task force members included Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, MySpace, Symantec and Second Life creator Linden Labs.
(To read original article, visit this Sydney Morning Herald link)