Internet threat to minors overblown, study suggests

CHICAGO Wed Jan 14, 2009 8:43am EST

Students at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School work on their laptops during a class in Dorchester, Massachusetts June 20, 2008. REUTERS/Adam Hunger

Students at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School work on their laptops during a class in Dorchester, Massachusetts June 20, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Adam Hunger

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Worries that the Internet and social networking services like MySpace pose a threat to child safety may be overblown, a report by industry, academics and technology experts suggests.

The report, which will be released on Wednesday, suggests that the biggest threats to children's safety online may come from other children, and that their own behavior could contribute to the trouble they encounter.

"Minors are not equally at risk online," the report said. "Those who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives."

It is the product of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, created last February by 49 state attorneys general to address what many of them said was the growing problem of sexual predators soliciting children online.

"The risks minors face online are complex and multifaceted and are in most cases not significantly different than those they face offline, and ... as they get older, minors themselves contribute to some of the problems," the study said.

The Task Force includes executives from social networking services like Facebook and News Corp's MySpace, as well as other technology and media companies including Yahoo Inc, Verizon and Time Warner Inc's AOL.

The findings, if accepted by the law enforcement community, would be important for Facebook and MySpace. Both social networking sites have large numbers of younger members, and parents have expressed concern over strangers approaching their children on those sites.

Both have signed agreements with the attorneys general to increase their efforts to protect their youngest members from sexual predators.

MySpace was the subject of a 2006 lawsuit by a 14-year-old girl who said she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old man she met on the site.

Released by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, the report suggests that the biggest threats to children's safety online come from other children.

"Youth report sexual solicitation of minors by minors more frequently, but these incidents, too, are understudied, underreported to law enforcement, and not part of most conversations about online safety," the task force said.

Online sexual predators are a concern, but the task force said that many of the studies it reviewed were based on law-enforcement cases that pre-dated social networking sites.

They said bullying and harassment, especially by peers, are the most frequent problem minors face both online and elsewhere.

Not all agreed with the findings. Task force member John Phillips, chief executive of Aristotle Corp, a company that makes software specifically intended to verify the identity and ages of people on the Internet, said blaming children and their parents is not the answer.

"There is absolutely a role for parents and for minors themselves to be a lot more careful," he said in a telephone interview. He said industry also needs to do more to protect children from sexual predators.

MySpace, which helped to fund the study, said in a statement it fully supports the key conclusions of the report, noting that "there is no single technological solution to the problem of youth online safety and no single technology that fully addresses any specific risk minors face."

Other companies that helped pay for the study include Microsoft Corp, AOL, MTV Networks parent Viacom, AT&T, Symantec, Turner Broadcasting, Loopt and Linden Lab, creator of the Second Life online community.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; additional reporting by Robert MacMillan in San Francisco; editing by Richard Chang)

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