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:
- Hemanshu Nigam blogged his letter to the Attorneys General
- Nancy Willard analyzed Pennsylvania’s press releases of arrests involving child predators and the Internet (Hint: she found that the AGs are seeing the same thing that we reported)
- Anne Collier blogged bout MySpace’s PR problem on this issue
- Berkman Center discussion of the ISTTF findings