The Internet may not be such a dangerous place for children after all.
A task force created by 49 state attorneys general to look into sexual solicitation of children online has concluded that there is not a significant problem.
The findings ran counter to popular perceptions of online dangers as reinforced by depictions in the news media like NBC's "To Catch a Predator" series and are the latest study to suggest that concerns about the Internet and sex abuse against children are overblown. Ina an article last February in American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association, researchers concluded that most allegatiosn about the Internet and sexual abuse were myths.
The Internet Safety Technical Task Force examined the extent of the threats children face on social networks like MySpace and Facebook, amid widespread fears that adults were using these popular Web sites to deceive and prey on children.
But the report cited research calling such fears a "moral panic," and concluded that the problem of bullying among children, both online and offline, poses a far more serious challenge than the sexual solicitation of minors by adults.
"This shows that social networks are not these horribly bad neighborhoods on the Internet," said John Cardillo, a member of the task force and chief executive of Sentinel Tech Holding, which maintains a sex offender database. "Social networks are very much like real-world communities that are comprised mostly of good people who are there for the right reasons."
The report is to be released today. The 39-page document was the result of a year of meetings between dozens of academics, childhood safety experts and executives of 30 companies, including Yahoo, AOL, MySpace and Facebook.
The task force, led by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, looked at scientific data on online sexual predators and found that children and teenagers are unlikely to be propositioned by adults online. In the cases that do occur, the report says, teenagers are typically willing participants and are already at risk because of poor home environments, substance abuse or other problems.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper in a statement Tuesday criticized the report, saying it "relied on outdated and inadequate research to downplay the problem of child predators."
"Law enforcement officers across the country are telling attorneys general that children are being solicited every day and that technology companies must do more to keep children safer," Cooper said.
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