Citizen Accountability Projects
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Monitoring MySpace: Parental and Political Pacification

The Wall Street Journal reports that News Corp. is planning to offer free software that parents (and others with computer administrator privileges) can use to track the name, age and location provided by any users of that computer who access an account on MySpace. The article reports that "dozens of teens have been molested and some even murdered by people who first contacted them through MySpace, according to law enforcement officials".  In the next paragraph, the article notes that MySpace has 60 million monthly users in the U.S. <sigh> Yet another example of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of The Wrong Things.

danah boyd has written extensively about youth, social networking services, and the interactions of the former through the latter. Last May, she (and Henry Jenkins) gave a scathingly insightful critique of the misconceived and misguided Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) -- which, unfortunately, is now law -- and highlighted many of the positive aspects of the use of MySpace by America's youth. In a more recent post -- a few more thoughts on child abuse, sexual predators, and the moral panic -- she comments on, and includes some graphs from, an article by Peter Reilly on The Facts About Online Sex Abuse and Schools.

Clearly, "online predators" ought not to be the biggest concern. A recent Pew Internet study reported that 55% of 12-17 year olds are using online social networking services ... and "a few dozen" have been molested?! If we are really serious about reducing the threat of sexual predators, we ought to be mandating the installation and monitoring of nannycams (or, perhaps, daddycams or unclecams), which would have the potential for far greater impact. In fact, I wonder whether MySpace is -- or could be -- used by youth to report on molestation ... yet another twist on cybershaming.

Americans are notoriously ineffective in analyzing statistics and assessing risks, and our government officials are notoriously effective in amplifying risks and imposing policies that seek to "mitigate" risks at costs that far outweigh the cure. The threat by 33 state attorneys general to take legal action against New Corp. over MySpace is not so different from the threat of the Bush Administration to invade Iraq over concerns of weapons of mass destruction. I hope that more reason will prevail in the former than was employed (or attended to) in the latter.

[Update, circa May 2007, posted November 2007]

In helping my daughter with some research for a report on parental fear of MySpace last spring (she chose the topic, not me), I found 33 cases in the past 6 months allegedly involving MySpace in what seems to be the best source for predator crimes involving MySpace (and other online sites), MyCrimeSpace. 30 of them were arrests, which works out to 5 per month (or 60 per year) - and note those are arrests, not convictions (of which I could find only 4 during the 6 month period).

A Wired article in February 2006 on Scenes from the MySpace Backlash   notes that "An August study by the National Center for Juvenile Justice estimated there were about 15,700 statutory rapes reported to law enforcement agencies in the United States in 2000, based on an analysis of data collected by the FBI."
Not all the cases listed on MyCrimeSpace are statutory rape, and if overall rates of statutory rape are declining, that 15,700 figure would be lower for 2007. But 60/15700, or 0.4%, may offer a rough estimate of how many cases involve MySpace or other online social networking services.

Of course, there may be more cases than those listed on MyCrimeSpace, so let's say that maybe up to 1% of statutory rape cases somehow involve MySpace. The aforementioned Pew Interent study released in April 2007 on "Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks: How teens manage their online identities and personal information in the age of MySpace" suggests that over half of teens are MySpace users. I don't know how many teens ages 12-17 there are in the U.S., but I think it's safe to say there are at least many tens of millions of them. So, if we have 60 cases - and again, those are arrests, not convictions - among tens of millions of young users, I would estimate the risks to be somewhere on the order of one in a million (0.0001%), and that's probably a very generous upper bound.

I'm not an expert statistician, but even if we grant an order of magnitude of error, this rather cursory analysis suggest that MySpace use is not a significant risk factor in exposing teens to sexual predators. In fact, I would not be surprised if young MySpace users are more likely to be more informed about the risks of molestation and other forms of sexual predation - online or offline - than those who are "protected" from the popular online service by their parents.

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