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Online Child Safety: Government Report

January 17, 2009

Internet Safety Technical Task Force: Final Report.

“Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies”
Final Report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force to the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking of State Attorneys General of the United States.
Directed by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

Bullet Points include important findings:

1. 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.

2. Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline.

3. Unwanted exposure to pornography does occur online, but those most likely to be exposed are those seeking it out, such as older male minors.

4. Social network sites are not the most common space for solicitation and unwanted exposure to problematic content, but are frequently used in peer-to-peer harassment,

5. Those who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives.

6. More focus should be placed on the role that minors themselves play in contributing to unsafe environments.

Executive Summary
Many youth in the United States have fully integrated the Internet into their daily lives.
For them, the Internet is a positive and powerful space for socializing, learning, and engaging in
public life. Along with the positive aspects of Internet use come risks to safety, including the
dangers of sexual solicitation, online harassment, and bullying, and exposure to problematic and
illegal content. The Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking, comprising 50 state
Attorneys General, asked this Task Force to determine the extent to which today’s technologies
could help to address these online safety risks, with a primary focus on social network sites in the
United States.
To answer this question, the Task Force brought together leaders from Internet service
providers, social network sites, academia, education, child safety and public policy advocacy
organizations, and technology development. The Task Force consulted extensively with leading
researchers in the field of youth online safety and with technology experts, and sought input from
the public. The Task Force has produced three primary documents: (1) a Literature Review of
relevant research in the field of youth online safety in the United States, which documents what
is known and what remains to be studied about the issue; (2) a report from its Technology
Advisory Board, reviewing the 40 technologies submitted to the Task Force; and (3) this Final
Report, which summarizes our work together, analyzes the previous documents as well as
submissions by eight leading social network sites regarding their efforts to enhance safety for
minors, and provides a series of recommendations for how to approach this issue going forward.
Due to the nature of the Task Force, this Report is not a consensus document, and should be read
in conjunction with the separate Statements from Task Force members included in the appendix.
At the outset, the Task Force recognized that we could not determine how technologies
can help promote online safety for minors without first establishing a clear understanding of the
actual risks that minors face, based on an examination of the most rigorously conducted research.
The Task Force asked a Research Advisory Board comprising leading researchers in the field to
conduct a comprehensive review of relevant work in the United States to date. The Literature
Review shows that the risks minors face online are complex and multifaceted and are in most
cases not significantly different than those they face offline, and that as they get older, minors
themselves contribute to some of the problems. In broad terms, the research to date shows:

• 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. The Task Force notes that more research
specifically needs to be done concerning the activities of sex offenders in social network
sites and other online environments, and encourages law enforcement to work with
researchers to make more data available for this purpose. 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.

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. Most research focuses on adult pornography and violent content, but there are also
concerns about other content, including child pornography and the violent, pornographic,
and other problematic content that youth themselves generate.

• The risk profile for the use of different genres of social media depends on the type of risk,
common uses by minors, and the psychosocial makeup of minors who use them. Social
network sites are not the most common space for solicitation and unwanted exposure to
problematic content, but are frequently used in peer-to-peer harassment, most likely
because they are broadly adopted by minors and are used primarily to reinforce pre-existing
social relations.

• 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.

• Although much is known about these issues, many areas still require further research. For
example, too little is known about the interplay among risks and the role that minors
themselves play in contributing to unsafe environments.

Members of the Internet community should continue to work with child safety experts,
technologists, public policy advocates, social services, and law enforcement to: develop
and incorporate a range of technologies as part of their strategy to protect minors from
harm online; set standards for using technologies and sharing data; identify and promote
best practices on implementing technologies as they emerge and as online safety issues
evolve; and put structures into place to measure effectiveness. Careful consideration should
be given to what the data show about the actual risks to minors’ safety online and how best
to address them, to constitutional rights, and to privacy and security concerns.

Parents and caregivers should: educate themselves about the Internet and the ways in which
their children use it, as well as about technology in general; explore and evaluate the
effectiveness of available technological tools for their particular child and their family
context, and adopt those tools as may be appropriate; be engaged and involved in their
children’s Internet use; be conscious of the common risks youth face to help their children
understand and navigate the technologies; be attentive to at-risk minors in their community
and in their children’s peer group; and recognize when they need to seek help from others.

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