Children and TechnologyBack in 1996 I attended a conference on children’s safety on the Net in Washington, DC as a member of an ALA task force. And geez, were there lots of people (either ultra-conservative folks or others who had set up businesses to earn a profit providing security services to parents, schools, and libraries) who spared no drop of sweat telling us how many pedophiles (who are, of course, always strangers who would never come into contact with their young victims if it wasn’t for the Web) lurk online.

Now it’s 12 years later, and we still hear about all these so-called pedophiles – these days they appear to lurk mostly on MySpace pages. I never saw any statistics demonstrating that there actually were thousands of pedophiles luring children; I only saw a few news stories that kept popping up over and over in the media until they took on urban-legend status.

Except, according to a new study from the University of New Hampshire, there are very few pedophiles online. Here’s the story, from the McClatchy Newspapers:

“There’s been some overreaction to the new technology, especially when it comes to the danger that strangers represent,” said Janis Wolak, a sociologist at the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

“Actually, Internet-related sex crimes are a pretty small proportion of sex crimes that adolescents suffer,” Wolak added, based on three nationwide surveys conducted by the center.

So where do all these stories of a pedophile lurking within every chat board come from? From the media, of course – the print and broadcast folks who know how to scare parents and get them to buy newspapers and watch TV shows.

Bruce Schneier’s blog, Schneier on Security, which looks at Net security issues in detail, has obviously followed the non-issue of the horrors caused by Internet predators for a long while. His post on the study is here.

Unfortunately, all of us know that as long as there is a single case of an Internet predator luring a child into meeting him, it’ll be hard to convince many parents that the Net is a relatively safe place, as long as children are trained not to give out personal information to strangers. It turns out that adolescents who are old enough to know better – but are looking for a little excitement in their lives – are at greater risk from predators than prepubescent children. Yet the number of sexual assaults on teens has actually dropped during the Internet era.

So read this information (here’s the actual article, from American Psychologist – a PDF file). Librarians and their supervisors in city and county governments, and library board members, should be aware of this UNH study and not worry too much about a threat to younger kids that has never been truly justified.