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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Headline Says Predatory Solicitations down, but...

Don't be fooled - it's not as good as it sounds.

A survey conducted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Childrent (NCMEC) is being reported widely, with a sadly misleading headline: that the percentage of young people receiving unwanted sexual solicitations, or solicitations from adults, had dropped since a similar study five years ago.

Sounds like good news, right?

Not so fast!
The title of the NCMEC release was actually:

That's a little different than the headlines you're likely seeing.

If you read this AP article (as posted at Business Week Online) carefully, and further if you go to the study itself, you'll note the following facts:
  • Aggressive solicitations -- the ones involving requests for contact by mail, by phone or in person -- remained steady

  • The report found growth in online harassment and unwanted exposure to pornography -- it's now up to 34%, vs. 25% five years ago

  • Even pre-teens are exposed: now 19% vs. 9% five years ago
Nancy Willard, who helps schools develop programs for online safety was quoted as follows:
"the dangers are real but they are not as significant as they have been hyped in recent months."
Hello?! The dangers are indeed real. And the dangers are significant. The "hype" in recent months has been helpful -- a call to action and an awakening of many to a difficult and time-sensitive community issue. In many cases, the actions that have been taken in recent months in response to the hype are, practically speaking, the FIRST and ONLY actions that have been taken in some communities. The mobbing of MySpace by teens is only a year old. To suggest that communities are over-reacting to the hype is at a minimum misleading for policy-makers.

We have a major problem here. That it's not worse is a blessing, but the way the article positions the news is (in my humble opinion) irresponsible. If we said back in 1980 "Drunk driving deaths have not increased since 1975," would that have been a victory? Should policy-makers back then have said, "Well, I guess we're over-reacting..."

Janis Wolak, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and co-author of the study is reported as saying,
"People have fears that these crimes involve offenders and predators who look at these (social-networking) sites and then seek to identify these kids. That's not really what's going on."
Well, I'm not so sure. Whether MySpace is used as the venue for the solicitation, or just the source of the information that leads a predator to a kid in some other venue, that's EXACTLY what's going on. The study just indicates that solicitations from "real-life friends" are occuring in greater abundance.

And perhaps that's MORE troubling. Whether it's because kids are portraying themselves more provocatively, or because those who are soliciting are becoming more aggressive, or because our kids as a whole are becoming ever more (inappropriately) sexualized, the news isn't good. Do you really feel better that your kid is being sexually propositioned by somebody he or she knows?

So my position is simple: Keep your guard up -- raise it higher, in fact, because we haven't even scratched the surface in really addressing the problem. The headline might sound like relief is in sight. But the only relief will come from taking a stand for real, pragmatic, community-wide solutions.


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