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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doing the math on MySpace and registered sex offenders

The Attorneys General – mostly angry at me and other researchers – have spent considerable time trying to publicly reject the ISTTF report that was published last month. This week, I watched as they blasted the airwaves with an announcement that 90,000 sex offenders have been removed from MySpace. This PR campaign is intended to provoke fears in the American psyche, to serve as “proof” that we were wrong. The underlying message is, “See, social network sites are dangerous!” Fear mongering by public officials is quite effective, but, once again, I’m frustrated to see the framing miss the reality of the data. For this reason, I want to challenge the message of the current PR fear campaign.

First, it is important to acknowledge that there are dozens of crimes that put people on the sex offenders list that have nothing to do with children. It differs state by state, but includes a variety of adult-adult crimes and even some crimes like indecent exposure in public. There is no indicator that the presence of those convicted of such crimes put children at risk.

Second, it is critical to note that it is not illegal for an individual who is on the sex offenders list to join a social network site unless it is part of their parole conditions (which constitute a very small number of cases). It is MySpace’s prerogative and they have been proactively engaged in removing these individuals as a private enterprise because they believe that it benefits the community of MySpace. Yet, many who are kicked off only learn that they are unwelcome once they are kicked off.

Now, let’s do some math. The National Alert Registry has over 491,000 registered sex offenders on its list. In data collected in December, Pew found that 35% of American adults are on social network sites. If sex offenders were a representative population, we’d expect that 172,000 of them would be on social network sites. Now, I know nothing of who is on that list, but if they were to skew younger or more urban, we’d expect even more of them to be on those sites. Regardless, the number announced by MySpace should not be unexpected or shocking.

One of the worst parts of dealing with quantitative numbers of any kind is our tendency to read into them what we want to read into them. We see a number like 90,000 and expect that it’s high and outrageous. But it is not more than would be expected by statistical patterns. And it’s not an automatic indicator of a problem. We need to know WHO those registered sex offenders are and WHAT they are doing to get a critical assessment of the risk. By focusing solely on the number, we introduce a red herring and, in doing so, miss the whole point of our report: there are children online engaging in risky behavior who desperately need our help. Blocking adults who have raped other adults, while likely desirable in general, does NOTHING to help at-risk kids.

Why are we so obsessed with the registered sex offender side of the puzzle when the troubled kids are right in front of us? Why are we so obsessed with the Internet side of the puzzle when so many more kids are abused in their own homes? I feel like this whole conversation has turned into a distraction. Money and time is being spent focusing on the things that people fear rather than the very real and known risks that kids face. This breaks my heart.

Update: Others have been responding to this issue with some very valuable and relevant content that I feel should be shared:

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21 comments to doing the math on MySpace and registered sex offenders

  • Great post. Really thought provoking.

    Cxx

  • A huge distraction, indeed – increasingly disturbing. Thanks for your post and link, danah. The disconnect between teens’ experience with social media and adult perceptions seems to be only widening.
    Anne

  • Andromeda

    Thank you so much. I saw that 90,000 and my first thought was, “Can I get any kind of contextual data?” But I saw it in a newspaper, so of course the answer was no.

  • Hi danah,
    Another way to look at the data is to say there are x total population in the US, compared with the y total of Myspace Population and divide them each into the total number of sex offenders in each population.

    Today’s US Population clock says we are at 305,762,842 people. (http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html)

    Divide that by the number of registered sex offenders (491k sex offenders/305m US pop) which equals .160582% where as the percent of sex offenders found on Myspace (90k sex offenders/76.4m Myspace users, per Techcrunch, http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/12/01/just-how-stupid-and-poor-are-myspace-users-exactly-a-look-at-the-data/) equals .117801%.

    In other words, the percent of registered sex offenders to be found IRL (in real life) is .16% verses in Myspace is .117%.

    Wow.. Myspace is like, 40% safer than real life. Someone call the AG and let him know!

    mary

    ps. i know i’m making a silly point, but i totally agree that people are obsessed with what will get themselves clicks, eyeballs and other fame reducing statistics, instead of managing the real problems kids, and everyone else, has.

    what i can’t figure out these days is how to get people off the fame obsession and how to get them caring in legitimate and deep ways about things that matter to them. almost everything is bugging me now about the way our internet is turning out and the ways people are getting the most shout. i fear the worst in these radical shifts we are going through with online communications. and i don’t mean predators on myspace.

  • And of course, there’s the assumption that these 90,000 sex offenders are all predatorial. There are important distinctions in the terminology, but the most fearful term is almost certainly the media-favourite.

  • Yes yes. I knew a guy who had to register as a sex offender because he took a piss outside on the way home from a club one night: he’d been drinking and had to wizz. Police pull up, tell him to turn around, he does: he’s arrested for indecent exposure.

    My problem with the circus surrounding sex offenders:
    We are persecuting a small number of people who are representative of larger problems in our culture. We hang their pictures on the wall to throw darts at; meanwhile, relatives are abusing children in probably 1 in 3 households in the U.S. We focus on the identified ones to the degree that families of those who are unidentified keep quiet so as not to put their loved ones and themselves into the public eye in such a disgraceful way.
    So the girl whose uncle abused her will continue to keep quiet about it because of the circus she sees surrounding the offenders who are identified.

    Our culture fetishizes youth and power: a dangerous combination. We should be trying to rehabilitate the culture and the offenders rather than finding more ways to ostracize them from the culture that produced them.

    Children weren’t safe before the internet.

    Thanks danah for once again fighting the hard fights.

  • raj

    Yes… I watched as they blasted the airwaves with an announcement that 90,000 sex offenders have been removed from MySpace.

    visit: http://www.free.eonlinetask.com

  • One thing I’d like to understand is: how does MySpace find the sex offenders. Wouldn’t any criminal-minded individual avoid using their real personal info when signing up for an online account if their goal is to commit a crime? Are they doing something crazy like working with ISPs to map IP addresses to real individuals? And even if that was the case, wouldn’t any of these criminals just use a proxy to connect to such sites or use a free wifi network?

    Seems like not only they spread fear but also a false sense of safety. Non-techy parents might actually think that MySpace is “safe” because all the sex offenders are not in that site.

    As someone running a website for kids, I’d like to see more organized efforts to raise awareness among kids about the challenges of sharing information and interacting with other people on-line.

  • Robyn Treyvaud

    danah you mention the ‘PR campaign is intended to provoke fears in the American psyche, to serve as “proof” that we were wrong’. It also impacts globally and in Australia the ISTTF report has had a significant and positive impact on those of us who work with young people, their families and school communities in the online safety domain. It reflects reality. We are fortunate that the publicity sought by some of your politicians has bypassed us here in AU. Dispelling myths is not helped by negative responses to your significant research and responses. I continue to be inspired by those of you in the US who are truly making a difference. Robyn

  • George

    I agree with you completely…but I still refuse to write your name with the little d and little b. It makes you look like a tween.

  • George, I think it makes her look like ee cummings, not a tween. She’d look like a tween if she used lots of exclamation marks and signed her name with an emoticon.

    danah, great post. Concise and thought provoking.

  • george

    Interesting side note: the stimulus bill includes in the Department of Justice appropriation “an additional amount for ‘State and Local Law
    Enforcement Assistance’, $50,000,000, for Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) initiatives.”

  • Art

    According to the Life Insurance Mortality tables every year until age 55 ONE out of every 1000 people born will die from every cause.

    Megans law was passed to prevent sexual assault by persons unknown to the victim. Looking at the US Department of justice studies of arrests for sexual crimes the number of stranger assaults on children under 18 since 1998 have consistently been under 4000 a year. Another of facts is a little more than half were committed by persons under 18. Even giving into those who believe stranger assault is a major threat to children when the total of 4000 arrests is related to a 2007 Census bureau estimate of 73,897,183 children under the age of 18 the risk of stranger sexual imposition of all kinds at ONE in 2000. A child is twice as likely to die than experience a stranger sexual assault that is the risk.

    For those who insist the number of unreported attacks means the problem is more extensive than as reported the only answer can be if that premise was valid the number of arrests would have varied greatly and That number has not varied more then 200 a year for the last 10 years so that fact would be impossible if there were a large number of unreported incidents.

    Why has this issue reached such a media frenzy that basic rights of all other criminal acts are considered of less importance. The most dangerous sexual threat to all children is from family and family friends. Learning the signs within your childs behavior patterns that indicate unwanted attention and maintaining trust and open communication with your children so they tell you everything is the most effective way to deal with this issue.

    While it clearly is in law enforcements interest to keep track of serious sexual predators the only effect of Megans law has been excessive persecution of released sex offenders which makes them much higher risks of committing so called survival crimes.

    Another fact that is often overlooked is that the sexual offender who follows the registration laws has a less than one percent chance of committing a similar crime again so there is no proven need for the public release of his vital statistics other then citizen harassment. Law enforcement is there to protect the community population and without public disclosure of the sex offenders registry they would do a better job with this issue by tracking down those who do not register rather than checking those registered who are less of a threat to the community than most others living there.

  • Steve

    danah,

    You ask, perhaps rhetorically:

    “Why are we so obsessed with the registered sex offender side of the puzzle when the troubled kids are right in front of us? Why are we so obsessed with the Internet side of the puzzle when so many more kids are abused in their own homes?”

    Why indeed.

    I think society has been confused and inconsistent about sexuality at least since my youth in the fifties, and arguably since Victorian times, and probably, IMO, much longer.

    I have always found it a puzzle personally – because growing up with (undiagnosed) Asperger’s syndrome, I was not fluent at picking up unspoken cultural assumptions – and sexuality in that period was nothing if not unspoken.

    I don’t think either the sexual repression of the fifties, or the sexual flamboyance and anarchism of the late sixties and beyond, or the faith-based moralistic backlash of the conservative Christians really addresses the problem. Eric Holder recently said, accurately IMO, and caught some flack for it, that Americans are cowards when it comes to discussions of race. I would suggest that our national dialogue on sexuality makes our conversations on race look profound by comparison.

    Now imagine yourself as a teen, in even a moderately less-than-functional family setting – alone and afraid in a world you never made. You will end up trying to figure everything out the hard way. “Risky behavior” is a genteel understatement.

    Now imagine you are a typical muddleheaded “concerned citizen” trying to make sense of this picture. Well, you are in luck. There is a set of tools available “off the shelf” to make hard scary questions easy and comfortable.

    Basically, just find a villan to blame for the problem. Sex offenders make a good villan. You can imagine them as the source of whatever sexual issues you find most disturbing. You can get the adrenalin flowing thinking of what should happen to them – starting with castration and moving on to scenarios not acceptable to discuss in this venue. But, as any first person shooter gamer can tell us, adrenalin purely FEELS GOOD! And it’s great for taking one’s mind of the actual troubles of life. “Kill the enemy”. This is an instinct that well predates our ascent into humanity – and we still get plenty of mileage from it.

    (Note that those whose sexaul identity differs from the accepted standard may prefer to demonize sexual conservatives – especially if those are socially active).

    Bottom line, sexuality is confusing, scary, and often painful. It’s so much easier to just get mad at somebody, rather than to figure out what the problem is and how to solve it.

    Welcome to the jungle,

    -Steve

  • CL

    I have only read a couple of your entries but are you saying that the Internet is safe for kids? You don’t believe that you’re giving sex offenders, stalkers whatever it might be fodder and easy accessibility but having myspace accounts or blog where these tween/teens post pictures and information about themselves? There are those who believe that putting up pictures and stories of your children is just fine,and that it’s not any different that walking through a grocery store or on a street. I’m really curious to see your answer on this one, as Mommy blogging is getting bigger all the time. Lastly are you a mother? I ask this because sitting behind a monitor or book and viewing life and handing out opinions is totally different once you’ve birthed a child, it’s not longer about just you.

  • The first thing that must be done , is to define who is to determnine who is supposed to be a sex offender. It must be a standard definition for all the states because the social network is the same where ever you are in the usa.Let’s say they have proven that these persons are sex offenders, is there an indicator that their presence put children at risk.The ISTTF is only trying to convince people that they are working on keeping minors safer on the Internet trough publishing meaningless reports.Internet users are a minorty compared to the big number of the people who breach the humain rights of children.

  • Nabil

    Well, also, aren’t gay men who were busted for having sex with other adult men registered as sex offenders?

    Remember, for a lot of states in the US, gay sex has been criminal up until Lawrence v. Texas– and that was just a few years ago.

    Thanks,

    N

  • When will parents wake up and realize that the Sex Offender Registry is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode? While the notion that a person who is intent on committing further sex crimes will tell law enforcement agents where they live, who their employer is (yeah right – like a RSO can find a JOB!), their e-mail address, and cell phone number while they are doing so is so ludicrous that it should be OBVIOUS that such a mechanism could never possibly work to make communities safer, parents and lawmakers continue to call for increased restrictions and requirements on former offenders who are compliant. This situation makes it so incredibly frustrating for those of us who ARE intent on doing the right thing that it creates an environment of hopelessness and despair, and I submit that it puts this entire group at greater risk of wanting to lash out at society.

  • jen

    Registered sex offender:

    Absolutely we should call for more restrictionos and harsher punishments for sex offenders. The fact that you have the freedom to express your opinion on this website is an indication that we aren’t doing our job. The fact that you feel you have the right to complain about how society has treated you, after you commited a sex crime tells me society is not doing their part.

    Here is an idea: If a person doesn’t like how sex offenders are treated, then they shouldn’t become one. And if they are one, they should accept the consequences of that, rather than complain about how unfair it is, and blame someone else for their treatment. You are where you are because of your actions. You can’t get a job? people don’t like you? look at yourself, because you are the one to blame for that.

    And, the fact that I hear people talking constantly about how the environment these sex offenders are forced to live in after their release from jail will make them “lash out” or “commit more crimes” tells me we should lock sex offenders away for life… after the FIRST crime. End of story. Either that, or during their incarceration… don’t put them in solitary to protect them from the other inmates… put them in population.

  • JCW

    Isn’t the idea that we should be trying to rehabilitate ex-convicts, not ostracize them further?

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