Good news via LiveScience.com’s reporter Benjamin Radford’s article “Study Debunks Web Predator Myths” from Thursday, March 6, 2008:

According to a new study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, most of what you think about Web-based sex predators is probably wrong. The study, published in the February/March issue of the journal American Psychologist and titled, “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention,” was based on three surveys: two of teen Internet users, and one involving hundreds of interviews with law enforcement officials. The results reveal that “the stereotype of the Internet ‘predator’ who uses trickery and violence to assault children is largely inaccurate.”

Much of the public’s concern comes from fear-mongering journalism. While TV shows like NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” and the “Today Show” gain high ratings scaring parents into thinking that threats to children lurk around every corner and abound on the Web, the reality is quite the opposite.

The article goes on to detail how the studies debunk five myths commonly believed by many adults (including many school board members and school administrators) which relate to Internet safety and social networking. These include:

Myth# 1: The sexual abuse of children has jumped, largely because of the surge in Internet predators.

Myth #2: Internet predators are a new threat to children.

Myth #3: Children should not interact with strangers online because of the potential for abuse.

Myth #4: Most Internet predators are pedophiles.

Myth #5: Internet predators often use deception to abduct and forcibly rape their victims.

The message of these studies and this article is similar to mine in workshops and presentations I share on Internet Safety and online social networking: There ARE risks associated with online communication, but in many cases the media has overblown them and we need to take a more balanced, realistic approach as educators, parents and community leaders. According to the article:

There is no doubt that Internet predators are real, and do pose a threat. But the real danger is the public’s deeply flawed understanding of the problem. “To prevent these crimes, we need accurate information about their true dynamics,” said Janis Wolak, lead author of the study. “The things that we hear and fear and the things that actually occur may not be the same.” Until the news media start accurately characterizing child sexual abuse and the real dangers of Internet predation, America’s children will remain at greater risk.

Thanks to Derek Baird for alerting me to this article by sending it to me via his del.icio.us social bookmarks. (He used the “for:wfryer” tag syntax to send it to me.)

The full article, “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention,” is available as a freely downloadable PDF file.

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