My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Study shows fear of MySpace predators is overblown

Prof. Larry Rosen, a psych prof over at Cal State, has just released data on MySpace and predators showing that the fear is completely overblown (duh). The press release is here. A longer report is here. Some of the findings are:

  • Only 7% of those teens interviewed were ever approached by anyone with a sexual intent and nearly all of them simply ignored the person and blocked him from their page.
  • Two-thirds of the parents were sure that there were many sexual predators on MySpace, while only one-third of the teenagers shared this concern.
  • When asked about media coverage, 66% of the parents felt that it was either understated or close to the truth.
  • Conversely, 58% of the teens felt it was vastly overblown.

(Tx David)

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21 comments to Study shows fear of MySpace predators is overblown

  • Local news channels will spin it differently:

    “According to a new study, one out of every 15 teens on MySpace has been approached by a sexual predator!”

    “Two-thirds of parents think MySpace is too dangerous for their kids!”

  • I don’t disagree with your general impression of the findings here — and it’s absolutely clear that “MySpace Paranoia” is the latest scare that gets people tuning into local news and buying newspapers and such.

    But — you have to admit that 7% is pretty high. The press release you link to doesn’t say, but assuming the sample was roughly 50/50 in terms of gender split and assuming that sexual predation on MySpace skews (perhaps heavily) towards women, that could easily mean that over 10% of the women in MySpace at least experience unwelcome advances of the sort that parents worry about (and the very fact of the advance is probably enough to freak out most parents, even if it goes nowhere, and their kid knows to ignore it). Surely not a crisis, by any means, especially since it’s clear that the vast majority of MySpace users know to simply ignore them in the first place — but, still, I was surprised to hear that the actual number is that high. Of course, I suppose if you compare this to the percentages of women who have been harassed in the workplace or the percentage of women who are victims of actual abuse in the “real world”, MySpace is statistically much safer.

    Equally surprising to me is that over 40% of the teens surveyed DON’T think the media coverage is “vastly overblown” — I would have thought the number of people who actually hang out on MySpace who think the media coverage is “vastly overblown” would be much higher than 58%.

    The other fodder for the media here is: “One in three admits their MySpace activity has negatively affected their schoolwork, family life, or both.” Wow — a third of them ADMIT this to be true, and it seems reasonable assume this is the kind of thing that would be under-reported in a survey like this. Now, of course, “negatively affected” is pretty loosey-goosey, so who knows.

    Finally, given that the guy who did this study is using it to promote a future book “targeted to parents of MySpacers” I find it hard to believe this is totally unbiased information (nor do I suspect he would agree with your general impressions of his findings that the threat is way overblown) — he’s not going to be selling books on the premise that “there’s nothing to see here, everything is OK.”

  • Bob

    OK Nathan, so a third of teens reported that MySpace negatively affected their schoolwork, family life, or both. But that’s such a small price to pay for giving your kids “wings”, not to mention “roots”. Duh!

  • Michael Chui

    Much as I agree with you, danah, on the subject of MySpace and predators, I don’t see the facts you cite from the study (too tired to read the report itself) to be proof of anything but exactly what they say:

    Teenagers think their parents are paranoid; and they’re also right. That’s not an indicator of sexual predators; it’s an indicator of parent-teenager opinions being, well… normal. If a predator was successful, the teen would hardly be available for an interview.

    Though the belief that the media is “close to the truth” is a bad sign regarding those parents anyways.

  • vbl

    I’m guessing that the data is nonsense, since “sexual predators” were defined as creepy strangers who seemed like outsiders and apparently ran around asking people for sex. Actual sexual offenders are frequently more clever than that.

    Consider the lead singer of a local band, who approached my friend on there, invited her out (which she accepted), and then date raped her.

  • This is a particularly sloppy interpretation of the research data.

    7% of teens is a huge number, frankly, when talking about potential crimes. Even if only 1 out of 100 of this 7% experienced more persistent stalking (something they could not block or ignore), that would still mean tens of thousands of serious incidents. That’s not a small problem.

    And the questions about media coverage are totally irrelevant to whether or not crimes are actually committed. They’re about perception only, which is often divorced from reality. They are interesting numbers to be sure, but they don’t have anything to do with whether or not sexual predation is a problem or not.

    You also neglect to mention some of the other numbers in the study, which aren’t so rosy:

    “Nearly three-fourths of teens give out their school name, half give out
    their e-mail address and half give out information about activities they will be doing, including the
    location.”

    “One in three admits their MySpace activity has negatively affected their schoolwork, family life,
    or both.”

    Anyway, I am not suggesting that there are in fact lots of predators on MySpace — I’ll bet it is indeed mostly media hype. I’m just saying that the numbers in this report do not actually support that conclusion at all.

  • Nathan said “nor do I suspect he would agree with your general impressions of his findings that the threat is way overblown”

    Actually, the title of his press release says exactly that. He’s playing it both ways, essentially saying “MySpace is safe, but you need some guidance”, which of course lays the groundwork for parents to buy his book.

  • Bob, if you read my comment you won’t find me even coming close to suggesting kids shouldn’t have full access to MySpace. My point is simply that the study data doesn’t exactly say it’s “harmless” relative to the parents who are afraid of it. But, if we kept our children away from everything that wasn’t “harmless” we’d have a very dull world.

  • Larry Rosen

    My thanks to Danah for posting my research report. To those on this discussion, my thanks for your insightful comments. Let me share some thoughts with you. My apologies about the length but there is a lot to digest in your comments.

    1. I am indeed writing a book and I think that it?s purpose is clear. As Christopher so aptly put it I am saying to parents that MySpace is safe but your kids do need guidance. I teach child development, behavior modification courses as well as one on the global impact of technology (feel free to look me up on MySpace?s professor ratings to see what students think). I have also been a child advocate for over 30 years. I do believe that MySpace has some major benefits for kids (I am 56 with 4 of them ranging from 31 to 15) including development of friendships, enhanced communication skills and identity formation. HOWEVER, the data can not be ignored. My major message to parents is not that there are sexual predators out there. In fact, as I stated in the report, most kids simply say ?get outta here? and move on. My message is that parents are fairly ignorant of what is happening in the virtual world. They overestimate the existence of sexual predators thanks to the media but also underestimate what their kids are doing and how long they are doing it. This is what needs to be dealt with.

    2. Nathan notes that he is surprised that 40% of the teens don?t think media coverage is overblown. I also think that is interesting and does show that they are aware of what the press is saying. That doesn?t make it real. Just the opposite. I think it means that they, too, are influenced by the media.

    3. As both Nathan and Christopher both mention, it is interesting that one in three understand that their MySpace activities do negatively impact their lives. Again, we have to give teens more credit for their awareness than most parents do.

    4. Nathan wonders about the percentage of women/girls who are approached and he is exactly right. In both studies the samples were more female than male (this is simply because there are more females than males on MySpace). In the first study there were more females approached (9.3%) compared to males (4.7%). In the second study where there were 8.3% ?approaches? again females (12.3%) were more represented than males (2.7%). This is hardly surprising given the literature on how men are more likely to approach girls. However, it is also interesting that many of these approaches were same-sex (still working on those data as they are tricky).

    5. I absolutely agree with Michael when he says that ?teenagers think their parents are paranoid; and they?re also right.? That is exactly what I am saying. For the most part, parents have no clue about what their kids are doing. It is not that there are problems, but the parents do need to be aware and talk to their kids (which they don?t seem to do as much as parenting experts would recommend).

    6. I agree with Christopher that the questions about media coverage are ?pereptions? only but perceptions are important, particularly when the teens and parents have VERY different ones.

    7. And I also wonder about the numbers of teens who are giving out information about their school name, email address and most particularly activities and location of those activities. This is an indication that parents have not really talked to their kids about this. I have two teens on virtual communities and I have talked to both about what I think is safe and what is not. I don?t think this is too much to ask of parents.

    8. Christopher?s assertion that this is ?sloppy interpretation of the research data? is puzzling to me. I have done 20 years of careful research on the impact of technology on adults and kids and always am careful to present the data in a way that hopefully leads to clear interpretations. These data are clear. And the points that I have made above are the issues. I guess that I wonder on what basis Christopher thinks the data interpretation is ?sloppy.? Perhaps it is the reality of how different parents and children see these virtual worlds that appears sloppy or misinterpreted.

    Thank you all for taking time to read my research and make comments about my work. I appreciate the thought that all of you have put into your comments and look forward to more discussion. Feel free to contact me individually if you have thoughts you don’t want posted here. My email is lrosen@csudh.edu

    Larry

  • Larry Rosen

    i just realized that my quotation marks are printed here as question marks. sorry for the confusion.

  • Not to oversimplify things, but it seems like lately broadcast media, and the people who inform themselves by it seem to have an ongoing habit of overblowing things in general. The Myspace story has been a great attention getting paackage that they could recycle for weeks, because it hits so close to home.

    PS. Larry Rosen, great work!

  • Larry, thanks for your thoughtful response. Here’s my clarification:

    The interpretation that “Sexual Predator Reports in the Media Overblown/Unfounded” (as the press release says, and as zephoria reiterates in this post) is, as I’ve argued, wholly unsupported by the numbers. You press release and the original post on this blog are what I thought were “sloppy” interpretations, and although the word choice may be overly harsh, I think it’s apt. Perhaps the press release format requires stretching the limits of scientific responsibility, as does blogging.

    Anyway, contrary to the headlines related to the press release, the numbers you provide seem to suggest that sexual predation is in fact quite common on MySpace. I can understand that it might be difficult for you to measure how many teens did *not* block or ignore predators online (i.e., how many of the teens who were approached became more serious victims), but just because you were unable to measure them doesn’t mean they are not there. The number suggest, to me, that they may in fact be there in large numbers.

    I suppose, however, you could argue that even if sexual predation abounds on MySpace, the hyperventilating press makes it seem like a teen can’t spend 5 minutes on MySpace without a pedophile knocking on their door the next day. This may be true — I don’t know because I don’t read or watch that kind of sensationalist media. I’m not aware that the media is stating any particular degree of predation online, such as alleging that “3 out of 5 teens will be approached by sex criminals on MySpace” or some such thing. Your study claims to be the “first” study of this, suggesting that there are no other studies like this reported in the press… so when you say “overblown”, you are at best comparing your real-world numbers to your subjective assessment of the media’s subjective assessments. (Maybe it would be interesting to poll media pundits who have reported on MySpace, too, and compare their assessments to the parents and kids.)

    Your numbers and methodology may in fact be airtight. I don’t question that, and I appreciate the insights the data provide. The discrepancy between parents’ and kids’ perceptions is quite salient, too, and is useful information. I simply question the *interpretation* that the data shows that MySpace is safe when it seems pretty likely to me that thousands of teens are being aggressively stalked.

  • Unfortunately, all the research in the world can be blown away by one sensationalized report, such as the one that broke this week in Toronto. A 23-year-old man here was charged with various offences after he allegedly attempted to induce a supposed young teenage girl he “met” on MySpace into performing lewd acts via webcam. (The actual story of falsified identities on all sides is worth reading; towards the bottom of the linked article.)

    The fact that the “girl” was an undercover cop (and therefore could be easily “lured” into an apparent willingness to perform the acts) is unfortunately lost on many. Are there pedophilic creeps in the world who attempt to satisfy their cravings via the ‘net? That fact is well-established. What doesn’t seem to be as well established is the number of youth that succumb to the lure via MySpace, or similar networks.

    I will admit that I don’t know the statistics. The tragic facts of child sexual abuse that I am aware of primarily pertain to those children who are already in physical proximity to abusers such as teachers, youth group leaders, clergy, relatives, neighbours, parents’ partners, and so forth. The majority of cases that come to mind pertaining to “Internet luring” (corresponding to the hysteria) are related to law enforcement agents posing as young people online, in order to catch the creeps.

    The key question for me with regard to online, youth-oriented, social networks is not the presence of, or number of, creeps, but rather the degree of susceptibility of young people to Internet-mediated luring. My off-the-top-of-my-head guess is that places like MySpace – with peer social network support educating new users about becoming savvy – are a whole lot safer than your arbitrary community sports team, scout-like troop, or goodness-knows-what-goes-on-behind-the-confessional-after-choir-practice.

  • If Rosen’s numbers are even nearly correct, MySpace is at least seven times safer than the average American family.

    Up to 45 percent of girls experience sexual abuse within the family (nuclear and extended), and between 25 and 35 percent of young boys do � figures you can ratify in most journals dealing with child abuse, or by talking directly with abuse counselors and psychologists.

    I lived with a psychologist, an expert on abuse, who came home most nights hugely angry and full of frustration, reminded each day how rife the family is with abuse — and how little is done about it in the name of “family values” and the sanctity of the family.

    MySpace, however bad it is, is light-years safer than “FamilySpace.” The media’s fearmongering is completely diversionary. What’s the motivation? More post 9/11-like hysteria leading to the triumph of reactionary politics?

    That the media is so misleading is more fearful than anything that needs to be said about the rather lame MySpace experience.

  • Bob, if one’s family is already safe, as most families are, then MySpace is infinitely more dangerous than the family. The whole point is to notify those parents who are NOT already abusing their children that when a child is online parents have no idea what they may be doing. Your number crunching is mathematical nonsense.

  • Larry Rosen

    My, haven’t we generated a bit of controversey here! And, Christopher, that is exactly the purpose of a press release. My work is solid and I stand by what the release says. However, to get it read by important media outlets (which, as has been pointed out so aptly by Mark following your post), it must state something that is controversial to them. Interestingly, the press release has gotten two responses. First, some media say WOW, let’s talk. Second, much to my surprise, many media outlets (mostly television) have said “Let’s wait until another predator hits MySpace.” What does that tell you?

    By and large, if you read my work carefully, the point I want to make is not different from what Christopher and others like Mark and Bob have said, too. My work clearly shows that parents need to be more aware of what their kids are doing. And sadly, the talk between parents and kids often goes like this: Mom: “Do you understand that there are people on MySpace who might approach you for, uhm, uhm, uhm things you may not want to hear or do?” Son/Daughter: “Duh, mom, of course I know that. What do you think I am, 2 years old?” Mom: “Well, OK. I am glad we could have this talk.”

    So, let’s get the media to stop focusing on predators and focus on what it is that is relevant. That is that parents need to take a more active role in what their kids are doing, mostly behind closed bedroom doors, on the Internet. It is not just MySpace, although that is a good venue to point out what they are doing. Kids are quite savvy these days although I just read an interesting study that shows definitively that while we thought that the brain was completely formed at adolescence and puberty, it is not. Until the late 20s “kids” have brains that still react impulsively without much conscious control. So parents need to be aware of what their kids are doing online and pay attention.

    By the way, I have two additional points to make. First, MySpace is now the 12th largest country in the world. As such, don’t you think there would be people out there doing things that are against the law? Second, based on comments by some on this discussion and others in the media, I did some additional analyses of the qualitative data. I will be posting those in a few days on my website and will give the link here when they are ready. Basically, what they say, is that the 7% figure is made up of two pieces. A very small percentage (around 1%)actually claim to having been approached by a “stalker” although it is not clear from reading the qualitative responses that they are not getting the term stalker from the media and just regurgitating it. Other comments made by these kids may indicate that it is not a real “stalker” as such. Another percentage (around 5%) are “propositioned” for sex, most often by someone unknown. The vast majority of these kids, without provocation through the interview, tell us that they just block the person. Only a small handful, 3 or 4 people out of over 1,500, have indicated that in any way it disturbed them.

    So, perhaps it is important that we not dwell on the mathematics of the issue and stop negative posts and start working on how we might help people recognize that MySpace is not going away and parents need to take responsibility, not the schools, not the law, not the libraries.

    Thanks for the time to clarify. Again, if anyone wants to talk about any of this privately, I can be reached at LROSEN@CSUDH.EDU.

  • Larry Rosen

    As promised, I have completed a more in-depth analysis of the “stalking” data and posted it on my website at http://www.csudh.edu/psych/SEXUAL%20PREDATORS%20ON%20MYSPACE.pdf

    You can also just go to my website at http://www.csudh.edu/psych/lrosen.htm and click on the second link under NEW RESEARCH STUDY.

    LR

  • Prof. Rosen really hits the nail on the head, “So, let’s get the media to stop focusing on predators and focus on what it is that is relevant.” Which leads me to think his press release is kind of off-topic.

    “Do you understand that there are people on MySpace who might approach you for, uhm, uhm, uhm things you may not want to hear or do?” Son/Daughter: “Duh, mom, of course I know that. What do you think I am, 2 years old?” Mom: “Well, OK. I am glad we could have this talk.”

    People talk about predators and they forget that kids are using MySpace to do things that they actually want to do, but are completely inappropriate for children to be doing! Perhaps I am being a fuddy-duddy here, compared to you Berkeley-denizens, and I know kids do this without myspace, but the simple fact is that myspace makes it easier for teenagers and pre-teens to “hook up”.

    It’s not about sexual predation, it’s teenagers (and pre-teens) doing what teenagers do, using myspace to do it more easily and under the nose of their parents. Perhaps parents are overly concerned about predators because they don’t want to think about the fact that their 12 year old daughter is consensually giving blowjobs to the entire sixth grade class.

  • “Only 7% of those teens interviewed were ever approached by anyone with a sexual intent.”

    That is a suprisingly small number. I mean being teenager is about discovering sexuality right?

    I think Mark has a point about abusive families but again this is something that it is very difficult to do something about whereas the online predators can be kept away with awareness and precaution.

    Clearly there are some predators out there and education of parents and kids and police presence in network sites such as myspace is necessary.

  • There will always be predators no matter what site becomes big the % of course is not going to be big when there are millions of myspace users. If another site becomes big it will have the same issues.

  • rachel

    I completely agree with you. I believe that half the predators on there wouldn’t be on there if the news hadn’t made it such a big deal. 7% is a high number, but when you think of all the millions of people that are on there, it’s not that great of a dint. I feel bad for the people that have been raped do to people on Myspace, but people need to realize that Myspace isn’t the enemy. There are girls and boys being melosted every day in our neighborhoods but no one ever pays attention.

    Also, I was reading a story where a girl was raped because she changed her age on her myspace to make it like she was 19, when she was (I believe) 15, and met with some guy. The parents were all mad at Myspace! My point is, we all have the power of choice. We know what is wrong and we know what is right. End the end, it’s our choice on who we are and what we do.

    Btw: I’m not trying to start any arguments or anything like that, everyone has different opinions and I completely respect that. 🙂