My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and 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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a few more thoughts on child abuse, sexual predators, and the moral panic

Every day, i read more articles about child abuse and online sexual predators. They make me sad but they also make me very frustrated because the more we talk about these cases of strangers abusing children, the less we talk about the real perpetrators of child abuse: adults who know children intimately. Today, i ran across a phenomenal article by Peter Reilly entitled The Facts About Online Sex Abuse and Schools. In it, he shares a lot of data about perpetrators, the state of child abuse in general, and the importance of not buying into the fear. Two of the images that he shares capture my unbearable frustration with our obsession with online sexual predators:

Of course, while the hype and paranoia continues, researchers are showing that teens are safer than adults think. Even The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is saying that things are getting better: new data in their longitudinal study of online victimization shows that only 4% of youth were asked for a naked or sexually explicit photo (down from 5 years ago).

Of course, i’m painfully aware that facts are worthless in a fight against paranoia and panic and this makes me tear my hair out. I wish i had the first clue how to stop a moral panic from doing the cultural damage that this panic has inflicted on teens. I talk to teenagers who are afraid of the Internet because they think it’s dangerous. I talk to teenagers whose parents believe everything they hear on Fox and have barred them from the Internet. How can we educate our youth about how to be responsible users of the Internet when we’re flipping out? ::sigh::

I think that Pete Reilly put it well in his article:

When we slice the “less than five percent pie” into these smaller pieces, the risk gets much, much smaller. Of course, statistics aren’t going to matter much if you are the parent of a child who has had an online incident, or the leader of school that has experienced one.

The question is, “Are we going to take a ‘zero risk’ approach to using technology and the tools of the Web?”

We don’t take a “zero risk” approach with our sports programs where the chance of injury, paralysis, and, in rare cases, death, is always present. We don’t take that approach with field trips where students travel to museums and historical sites in locations where they might be touched by crime. We don’t take that approach with recess on our playgrounds, or transporting our kids to and from school.

We can never eliminate all risk; but there are ways to maximize our students’ safety while using these incredibly powerful tools. Each tool needs to be analyzed individually to ascertain its benefits and the specific risks it might present. From there, thoughtful people can find solutions to the student safety issues that may arise.

(tx mrc)

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21 comments to a few more thoughts on child abuse, sexual predators, and the moral panic

  • You know, I so much prefer that my children are educated about online life than completely ignorant of it, as are many of their friends. Knowing the landscape and the players gives you so much more power over how things play out online.

  • Shortly I’ll be organising a training session for new members of the European network for safe, ethical & responsible use of ICT. This kind of information is great input, to try to ensure the new members act on the reality of the situation, rather than focusing on the ‘moral panic’ issues.

  • Excellent post. It reminds me of a story I heard on NPR about exclusive gated communities that are constructed deliberately away from any posted address of a sexual offender. It’s clearly a marketing ploy to exploit parents’ insecurities dodging the more prevalent issue of domestic abuse.

    I enjoy my visits here. I just wish there was more community on the web for older folks. An unexploited niche?

  • Hi danah! I think part of the way to reach parents and teachers is to validate their natural desire to protect their kids at any cost. In my work on these issues I try to use metaphors parents will understand since they were teens once, too. Teens are still teens, and technology is just a tool. If parents can understand what the technology is (have it demystified instead of just reading about it) and then be empowered to teach teens to use it ethically and responsibly, I think we will see less panic and more parental involvement in teens lives (offline and on).

    Before we can debunk the mythology with facts, it kind of takes understanding psychology. It’s in the quote you pulled for this post:

    “Of course, statistics aren’t going to matter much if you are the parent of a child who has had an online incident, or the leader of school that has experienced one.”

    I think it’s a normal response to want to “turn it off” when something really bad happens. And sometimes it’s ok for parents to turn it off for a little while as a consequence depending on the severity of the incident. With teachers it’s more about using those incidents to craft solid policies around when this stuff happens. Policies that hopefully include lesson plans that include online ethics and information literacy.

  • The perception of risk seems to be so often different than actual risk. I’m never quite sure whether to blame our inherited neural wiring or the media. Thanks!

  • Steve

    The real answer to educating children and teens about the realistic risks and benefits of being online is peer-to-peer sharing. There are a massive number of kids already online in the supposedly dangerous venues. Even if a particular kid has been lied to by their parents, the media. etc. there will be someone or more than one someone in their circle of acquaintances who is online already and has a realistic perception of what that environment is like. They should talk. Given the exploratory nature of the teenage years it is inevitable that they *will* talk. Sooner or later the truth will come out. It’s difficult to maintain a lie when umpteen million people know the truth and some of them are people you talk to every day. Figuring out that “Chester the molester” is not hiding under your computer waiting for you to log on will become part of growing up, just like when you realize that Santa Claus is not literally real. Such ignorance is strictly temporary.

    Now of course, all of the above ignores the possibility that there are cliques and/or subcultures who deliberately engage in high-risk behavior online. (I mean, jeez, all those underage sexy pics that get posted have to come from somewhere. There appear to be people out there who are doing that). If somebody happens to fall in with such people and be socialized accordingly, their experience will be different. Has there been any research on this?

    -Steve

  • Dana I need to digest this but thanks for a very thoughtful treatment here. As a parent I’m alarmed at how few child protection concerns there are within the internet community, but as an internet guy I’m alarmed at how poorly people are processing the real implications of social networking. Action s based on the findings of the studies you cite above, combined with other research, are the correct approach IMHO.

  • Bertil

    danah,

    These figures are stricking — however, one detail puzzles me about your interpretation. These are overall averages; do we know if these results are stable depending on social class, or the closest American equivalent: revenue? They give such details about the sample, but not the victims subgroup. I know little about the US, but I would assume violent foster fathers and gated communities are not prevalent in the same financial bracket. If true (I’m no expert) this would certainly reassure executive dads to know their huge paycheck reduces their child probability to encounter the wrong (not-)strangers — if not, saying so might prevent prejudice like mine. You might want to avoid putting oil on the fire too, and not encourage more revenue-based segregation. Another question: this parents to foster parents (in-laws, etc.) ratio, is it higher then the national average of parents to foster parents? Does the blood-line prevent action? Is their a bias from social background there too? And last: sex ratio amoung offenders, victims (in the larger report males and somehow younger females) Correlated to previous data?

    dave,

    I’ve seen a Social Network service that, though it does not explicitely target them, has a very “greying” audience: peuplade.com. The key feature is that it is highly location based (and Paris centered — well, it’s ‘framed’ so, but explicitely works with a Google Maps API); so far “help to go shopping” is a prevalent demand, but clubbing ads are frequent too. My assumption would be that “meeting” people leaving nearby is both relevant for a generation that doesn’t understand virtual life, and an attractive offer for children of elder people who can’t attend their parents as often as they should. I’ve seen both ads from tech-savvy grand’pa’s and accounts explicitely posted by a younger relative.

  • “Scary world theory” comes home! Individuals who grow up in a society where the media over-reports certain incidents receive a biased view of the world around them. It’s a classic chicken and the egg question: do the media create alarming news, or do people demand alarming news and the media are just delivering it?

    For instance this winter there were several lost families/climbers that received a lion’s share of attention. I would be surprised if more people got lost in the wilderness than previous years. It is merely disaster du jour.

    I used to be a law & order (including “special victims”) junkie, then moved to watching “without a trace.” It’s easy to see how somebody might draw false conclusions about child abuse. On television there are practically dozens of child snatchings and people who just “disappear” daily in any given metropolitan area. Typically these disappearances are due to murder (double points if it’s by a greedy, spoiled rich brat from Manhattan), roving perverts (everywhere!) and mistaken identity (what are the chances?).

    In all seriousness however, there are terrible truths underlying these statistics. The issue is not to downplay the nature of the crime, but rather how anecdotal reports are becoming the norm instead of level-headed reporting. Insert Glassner’s “Culture of Fear” (subtitled “why americans are afraid of the wrong things”) here.

    Specifically regarding underage individuals online, I would bet it’s somewhat less onerous of a problem when all the variables come in to view. Underage individuals are not specifically in harms way when they are propositioned online, and can easily turn off the computer or ignore propositions.

    Additionally I would guess a lot of underage online nudity, semi-nudity, or risky behavior (a la MySpace) comes from younger individuals engaged in interactions with people their own age. Most young individuals are quite technologically savvy – more so, I’d guess, than their parents.

  • Hi danah, and thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Figure one refers to substantiated cases of child sexual abuse only, not reported or actual incidences. Many types of sexual abuse are extremely difficult to substantiate, but may still result in significant trauma. Victims of child sexual abuse do not necessarily report to anyone, or until adulthood, and do not necessarily pursue the conviction of their abuser. It’s difficult therefore to use substantiated figures as anything but a rough indicator or what actual rates might potentially be. There are a few socio-historical reasons for substantiation rates declining, the most obvious of which is the increase in reporting which occurred in the 1980s and early 90s following the success of the women’s movement to achieve wider acknowledgement of the wide spread prevalence of child sexual abuse.

    Child sexual abuse is and remains a widespread problem, and I think you are absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that the majority of child abuse is perpetrated by family members – although ‘child sexual abuse’ is subsumed into all abuse on the second figure, family and close family friends account for the majority of sexual abuse as well.

    Partly I suspect that the moral panic surrounding online child sexual abuse is a way of avoiding the very complex problem we have with child sexual abuse in the world in general, off and on line. Moral panics of this type usually occur around ‘stranger danger’, allowing us to focus on outsiders and identifiable monsters rather than fathers and mothers.

    I think the approach we take certainly has to focus on media literacy rather than censorship or avoidance, and schools are increasingly acknowledging the role they have to play in keeping their students safe, informed and prepared about their online activity.

    However, as your article rightly points out, by addressing online abuse is only a small part of addressing child abuse. I would very much like to see bullying and abuse programmes which address online occurrence and dangers firmly in the context of offline incidence. While we can’t hope for this from news reporters, we can require it of our policy makers and education providers.

  • Judy

    I am speaking from personal experience…I was kidnapped at knife point by a stranger when I was 9 years old and molested. Luckily a friend happened by the area were I was being held and the perpetrator became and scared and released me or I would probably be dead today. While I agree that the percentage of people that something like this can happen to is small, the effects are devastating to the victim. Consequently, what is the harm in informing the public on these cases? Do you really think there are children that will NEVER use the internet because their parents restrict its use? I doubt it.

  • CK

    Morning,

    In my never-ending search for new and interesting blogs, this article has stood out. I work with Social Services in the UK and it can at times be very upsetting to see some of the cases of neglect and abuse involving children.

    Obviously our two cultures share various structures but I find it interesting that, in my experience at least, there doesn’t appear to be that same fear of the Internet amongst children in great Britain.

    I’d never really considered this issue before, but find it quite refreshing – for want of a better word. Moral panics are all too common in the media, and has been ever since the creation of the first newspapers. The modern age of interactive, 24-hour media has only brought the same panics into our living rooms on much larger a scale. In essence this has all stood to exacerbate the public’s perceptions of any given social ‘problem’. It’s good to see that, with regard the Internet at least, people’s fears are not out of context or irrational.

    True, there is certainly an issue there, but it is certainly not the biggest factor involved in child abuse present today.

    You rightly state that the prevalence of Internet -related abuse is comparatively low and that the main perpetrators are almost always parents or close, personal relatives. Unfortunately, because children are often so trusting of their family, scared to speak out, or in many cases think that what is happening to them is either normal or their fault, I am unfortunately certain much more takes place behind closed doors than that of which we are currently (or ever) aware.

    Very interesting article.
    Regards,

    Craig

    P.S.: A startling moral panic: The elderly in the UK believe themselves to be at the most risk of petty crime and theft. Young people (under 25-years) understand themselves to be at the least risk. Surprisingly, official and independent figures unanimously show that the truth is the complete opposite to public perception.

  • Danah,

    Generally I agree with your overall point. But that first charge sticks out to me as largely irrelevant. With data that only goes up to 2000 I don’t think we can use it as a “things are that bad” position. If anything it helps the position of those who would say that online is a dark place by allowing them to say “this chart shows that the data is outdated in the MySpace/Facebook/etc. world”

  • Dana, we met at the CyberSafety conference where you spoke w/reasoned, rational wit and wisdom. Recall? I’d like to get a few quotes/comments for a counter-posting I’m working on re: a heavy-handed ‘moral panic’ bulletin that went home to middle-school parents re: the ‘dark side’ of the internet. Like you, I find this law enforcement fear factor unproductive and creating wedges btwn. parents & kids where they needn’t exist if we all look at the facts and use media literacy. I wrote a bit about the ‘stress’ misinformation is adding to family lives (and included the paragraph sent home, highlighted in italics) If you could ping me with a few comments, I’d love to prepare a balanced feature & source this article, BlogSafety, NetFamilyNews & more, to assuage parental panic which is edging out ‘ad creep’ as the new media watchword. Here’s the link:
    http://www.shapingyouth.org/blog/?p=240 Ping me if you can.

  • Fiona Berry

    I think your article is extremely misleading. You begin by talking about sexual predators, and then provde a pie chart which appears to show that 79 per cent of abuse is carried out by parents. Actuall analysis of the figures thought to be the best indicator of abuse – from the Child Welfare Gateway study, show actually that only 3% of sexual abuse is by parents:
    *** quote begins ***
    Perpetrators

    Approximately 79 percent of perpetrators were parents. Other relatives accounted for 7 percent and unmarried partners of parents and “other” accounted for 4 percent and 5 percent of perpetrators, respectively. The remaining perpetrator relationship types accounted for less than 1 percent each (figure S-6).
    What were the characteristics of perpetrators?

    Female perpetrators, mostly mothers, were typically younger than male perpetrators, mostly fathers. Women also comprised a larger percentage of all perpetrators than men, 58 percent compared to 42 percent(figure S-7).

    Of the parents who maltreated children, less than 3 percent committed sexual abuse, while 63 percent committed neglect. Of the perpetrators who were friends or neighbors, nearly three-quarters committed sexual abuse, while 10 percent committed neglect.

    *** end quote***

    As you will see, for sexual abuse, the figures within families are actually pretty low, while the figures from other adults in the child’s life are much higher.

    It is all very well to exhort parents to give their children more freedom and not to overprotect them, but you should be careful not to encourage them to do that by distorting the facts.

  • Fiona Berry

    I think my previous posted comment may have been eaten by the junk folder due to bad spelling of the word.

    You really must adjust the statistics you have give to reflect the truth. You talk about sexual predators and then show that over 70% of abuse is perpetrated by parents. But that’s ALL abuse, including neglect.

    Of course most child neglect and physical abuse is perpetrated by parents on their children. But of the parents accused of abuse, less than 3% were accused of sexual abuse.

    You should not support your arguments by distorting the facts. Most sexual abuse occurs outside the family, although most also involves people that the child knows and does not regard as a stranger.

  • I wrote and published a book on December 1, 2005 titled “Anastasia and The Ghostly Owl (The Choice Was Hers!).” This story is about hope, overcoming obstacles, and making choices in the face of adversity. More concretely, it is about child abuse and how the protagonist, a young girl named Anastasia, comes to terms with it.

    The purpose of this story is to reach out to as many people as possible, to present hope, to inspire, and to encourage those who have been unfortunate to have experienced unfair adversity in their life. I appear to have been successful in that goal. Here are some excerpts from reviews . . .

    This is a moving story about one girl’s journey to find feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.
    - Jill Zimmerman Rutledge, LCSW, author of Dealing With The Stuff That Makes Life Tough: The Ten Things That Stress Girls Out and How To Cope With Them

    This short but potent tale is indeed the story of a young girl, Anastasia’s, metamorphosis out of the smothering and woundedness caused by cruelty and abuse. … Perhaps this unique story will touch many lives … Perhaps this story will bring one person into a life of more fun and less pain!
    - Review by Viviane Crystal, Member of Reviewers International Organization

    … I couldn’t put the book down until I completely finished it on the back cover. It is so down to earth, so well versed I could feel times that I was “Anastasia.” Reading the words, but the brain saying “you’ve been there” too.
    - Emily Schuessler, Customer, Ontario

    “Anastasia and the Ghostly Owl (The Choice Was Hers!)” is a book with a purpose, namely to inspire readers to overcome whatever challenges they may face … It’s an unusual book … this book is meant to serve as a blinking arrow penetrating the darkness to point you toward the light that lies at the end of your own personal tunnel, and I think it succeeds very well in doing just that.
    - Daniel Jolley, one of Amazon.com’s Top 50 Reviewers

    “Anastasia and The Ghostly Owl” is about hope and overcoming obstacles that you will read and re-read, and will be a classic treasured by generations to come.
    - Florence Starr, Customer, and Founder of The Home For The Aged in Fernie, BC

    “‘Who am I?’ is a question that many people of many ages ask – it is the first question of the story. Anastasia asked this of herself over and over; of course, life is properly a process of discovery, and this can take place at different times and in different ways for each individual. … This book shows a creative spark and an intense desire to share with others. … this is Wladichuk’s first book … A good premier effort.
    - FrKurt Messick, one of Amazon.com’s Top 50 Reviewers

    I appreciated the simplicity of this very complex story – I read the book 3 times within a 24 hour period and each time I was forced outside my comfort zone and caused to remember and experience again my own journey to self-actualization. – Thank you for sharing this story with me.

    - Tom Jones, Customer who also put his review on Amazon

    Child abuse, of course, is not restricted to any one particular segment of society, so I am contacting various groups and organizations with the intention of inspiring others who have suffered unfair adversity. Please take a moment to visit my website at http://www.ghostlyowl.com to read excerpts from “Anastasia and The Ghostly Owl (The Choice Was Hers!)” and to see what reviewers and customers are saying about my book.

    This is the only book that is available which does not describe the horrific details of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. If you are looking for a book that does not do this, then “Anastasia and The Ghostly Owl (The Choice Was Hers!)” is the book for you!

    Thank you so much for your assistance.

    Sincerely

    Anita E. Wladichuk, Author

    “Anastasia and The Ghostly Owl (The Choice Was Hers!)”

    Ghostly Owl Publishing Company

    Suite 479, 104-1015 Columbia Street

    New Westminster, BC V3M 6V3

    Canada

    Email: anastasia@ghostlyowl.com

    Website: http://www.ghostlyowl.com

  • gurlie

    i think child abuse is a big problem in this community that is why i decided to do my executive summary on it. i think that if any one likes child abuse they can go to h***

  • gurlie

    i think child abuse is a big problem in this community that is why i decided to do my executive summary on it. i think that if any one likes child abuse they can go to h***

  • Though I am only 15, as of yesterday [happy birthday to me]
    i notice most adults “care” about child abuse; very few actually do anything to help stop it. its rediculouse.
    im actually doing a 15 minute speech on it tomarrow at school, im kind of nerviouse but, wish me luck.

  • Donna Laine

    I don’t know if the pie chart was about child abuse or child sexual abuse? And, as for “substantiated” that usually means the legal system decided the accused man was guilty. I believe there are many American men who are accused and the justice system rushes hysterically to manufacture evidence, even going so far as lying in court in the prosecution.

    In our locality in Kansas, there is much poverty. There are a lot of females who use the moral panic to benefit themselves financially. If they want a divorce and wish to receive all the assets, they claim sexual abuse. Even the girls have caught on, they can use this accusation to their benefit when it is untrue. So, “substantiated” doesn’t mean much. Like one poster said, many real abuses go unreported, so its all just a guess.

    Some of the real victims of it all are the families (including children) of the accused. Their lives are ruined by the accusation to their relative. I am posting so that more people will stop to consider that this moral panic is greatly inflicting enormous pain on so many people. I do wish the media would do more research before they report something which has such a great chance of being untrue.

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