Virginia’s Youth Internet Safety Task Force Releases Report

Virginia’s Attorney General Bob McDonnell compiled a “rock star lineup” to investigate ways to protect Internet users and prosecute online criminals. The result, is a 100+ page report full of recommendations based on five meetings of three different groups — The Law Enforcement Working Group, The Parents/Educators Working Group, and The Technology Partners Working Group. Most of the changes suggested consist of strengthening laws regarding access to child pornography and toughening punishments for those caught soliciting minors online. A few pertain to creating educational materials for children and parents about how to be safe online (one of the suggestions is to create a fun video game to teach kids about internet safety — do these ever work?).

Overall, the report is filled with every message one would expect, with no additional surprises: The Internet is dangerous, we must find a way to stop predators, we must rise to the challenge to save our children. There are also several statistics quoted in the report: some are cited, some are not. One that is cited is the infamous “one in five children is sexually solicited online” from the UNH report of 2000; that number has decreased to 1 in 7 in 2005. One that has no reference, other than United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, is “There are as many as 50,000 predators online trolling for child sex victims at any given time.” I have no idea where that number came from or how it was derived.

Many people participated in the Task Force — judges, law makers, teachers, parents, even teens. But two groups not represented were psychologists and researchers. I wish they were invited to the table to provide a better balance of voice. I think this is a topic worth addressing, but it should be investigated not only with policy in mind, but also a true understanding of what is going on. So little is known about cyberspace when it comes to sex and even less is known about the active role children are playing in it. The fact that the Task Force did not invite people who may have insight into this aspect of the problem either shows that those in charge are completely unaware of this aspect of the issue or are trying to deny it.

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Megan’s Law goes virtual

According to several news sources, including MSNBC, Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell has proposed a bill that would require sex offenders to not only register their physical address with the state, but also their “online identities.” In other words, when sex offenders have to register in accordance with Megan’s Law, they will have to disclose their email addresses on IM screen names along with all their other personal information, which can include their place of work, make and model of car, and basic physical description.

While I appreciate legislative attempts to increase the safety of our youth, I believe that this is yet another misguided attempt that will not solve the problem of online predators (which, by the way, we really do not have a sense of how big a problem it actually is). I mean, how hard is it to establish new online identities? Heck, you can create several of them in the span of an hour. All a sex offender has to do is register one or two of them with the state, and then simply interact with youth using one of the other 20 they have kept to themselves.

I have a neighbor whose friend, “Steve,” pretty much lives with him. In fact, I thought the guy did officially live in this house, but it turns out he doesn’t — he just crashes there all the time. Steve is a registered sex offender, having had been convicted for a sexual encounters with a young boy. But when I go online to look up the names and pictures of the sex offenders in my neighborhood, Steve is not among them. Why? Because he dutifully registered in his official zip code of residence. Nevermind he is never there — he is always hanging around on our block — he is obeying the law perfectly. But if he ever does reoffend (I have no reason to believe he will or will not either way) he most likely will do so near me, where he spends most of his time.

Now translate this concept to cyberspace where it is infinitely easier to claim one identity (read: residence) as your real one and then use another one or two or more as you hang out in cyberspace. There are provisions in this bill against this scenario; “To guard against offenders registering one address but using another on MySpace, the penalty would be the same as it would be for not registering or for providing incorrect information, which could result in a misdemeanor or felony charge,” states the MSNBC coverage. But you know how it is. A misdemeanor in return for anonymity? Doesn’t sound like a bad trade off to me. That is, if you get caught.

Just ask Steve about that.

Couldn’t say it better myself

Teens can indeed be the voice of reason. There’s an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that is essentially a transcript of a focus group where teens are talking about social networking. It’s a great piece; the teens are able to articulate the realities of how they and their peers use the Internet to connect with each other. Some of the basic messages:

1. Don’t ban your teen from using the Internet because they will just go over to a friend’s house and use it there.

2. The media gives MySpace a bad reputation. Learn about what social networking is really about from the people who use it, not report on it.

3. Parent involvement is good as long as the parent and child can talk to each other about what is important to them.

Ryenn says it best:
“I think the Internet is safe unless you make it unsafe.”

That about sums it up.