Sometimes, it seems like every time I turn around, someone else is freaking out about “protecting children from sex” which usually translates into withholding information, lying about sex and safety, pretending that teens aren’t sexual beings, and projecting a “do what I say, not what I did” message. Ironically, as Judith Levine points out in her extensively researched book Harmful to Minors, all of these strategies actually increase the chances that youth and young adults will end up in the very situations that we really need to protect them from. STI and pregnancy rates go up and kids have sex at younger ages when we hide the facts from them. The research shows it, even though lots of people refuse to accept that.
On a related note Psychology Today posted an article about the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF), an organization convened by the attorneys general of 49 states to investigate the use of the internet by child molesters looking for victims. You can read the full report or the executive summary here. But the short version is that online sexual predators aren’t nearly the threat that we’ve been led to believe. Here are a few quotes from the summary:
- Sexual predation on minors by adults, both online and offline, remains a concern. Sexual predation in all its forms, including when it involves statutory rape, is an abhorrent crime. Much of the research based on law-enforcement cases involving Internet-related child exploitation predated the rise of social networks. This research found that cases typically involved post-pubescent youth who were aware that they were meeting an adult male for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity.
- Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline.
- The Internet increases the availability of harmful, problematic and illegal content, but does not always increase minors’ exposure. Unwanted exposure to pornography does occur online, but those most likely to be exposed are those seeking it out, such as older male minors.
- Minors are not equally at risk online. Those who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives. The psychosocial makeup of and family dynamics surrounding particular minors are better predictors of risk than the use of specific media or technologies.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is no risk, but rather that the risk is a heck of a lot less than we’ve heard. Adam Thierer (one of the members of ISTTF) points out that we need a more nuanced approach than simple age verification. It’s a “magic bullet” approach that simply doesn’t work. It also creates a false sense of security, which could actually reduce how much we teach kids about keeping safe online. As the report points out:
Instead, a combination of technologies, in concert with parental oversight, education, social services, law enforcement, and sound policies by social network sites and service providers may assist in addressing specific problems that minors face online. All stakeholders must continue to work in a cooperative and collaborative manner, sharing information and ideas to achieve the common goal of making the Internet as safe as possible for minors.
Once again, we have a situation in which the most effective response includes parents talking with their kids about sex. Over and over, the experts say that that’s an essential tool for ensuring that youth have the information they need to stay safe. I know that can be a scary thing to do, but there are lots of resources. Check out Third Base Ain’t What It Used to Be or S.E.X.
> Or if you prefer a website to a book, try Go Ask Alice, Sex Etc., or the Coalition for Positive Sexuality. Website age verification alone won’t do it.