Predator Panic

When I was down in Virginia Beach for the election a local TV station was running an ad on the radio for an upcoming series it was doing on “how to protect your children from child predators.” It was a week-long series that was going to culminate in a big town-hall meeting sort of thing and clearly the station was banking (and I’m guessing correctly) that this would be very popular. Then just after one of these radio ads, I heard an ad for George Allen, in which his wife talked about what a great guy he was and how he would “protect children from child predators” and I thought to myself: this is insane. In the spectrum of threats to children, child-predators may not even rank in the top 100. And yet, here’s the local news station expending considerable time, money and effort on covering the issue and a politician for the United States Senate running on it. It would be like a young presidential candidate deciding to center his message on stopping shark attacks and lightning strikes.

I’d been meaning to write a polemical essay about how crazy the “child predator” obession is, but Benjamin Radford beat me to the punch. His essay, “Predator Panic: A Closer Look” in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer does a good job of toppling some of the most persistent myths about child molesters and their victimes.

For instance:

According to a May 3, 2006, ABC News report, “One in five children is now approached by online predators.” This alarming statistic is commonly cited in news stories about prevalence of Internet predators, but the factoid is simply wrong. The “one in five statistic” can be traced back to a 2001 Department of Justice study issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“The Youth Internet Safety Survey”) that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences. Anyone bothering to actually read the report will find a very different picture. Among the study’s conclusions: “Almost one in five (19 percent) . . . received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year.” (A “sexual solicitation” is defined as a “request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult.” Using this definition, one teen asking another teen if her or she is a virgin—or got lucky with a recent date—could be considered “sexual solicitation.”) Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the “sexual solicitations” came not from “predators” or adults but from other teens—in many cases the equivalent of teen flirting. When the study examined the type of Internet “solicitation” parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from “one in five” to just 3 percent.

This is a far cry from an epidemic of children being “approached by online predators.” As the study noted, “The problem highlighted in this survey is not just adult males trolling for sex. Much of the offending behavior comes from other youth [and] from females.” Furthermore, “Most young people seem to know what to do to deflect these sexual ‘come ons.’” The reality is far less grave than the ubiquitous “one in five” statistic suggests.

Now if we could only get the media as obsessed with child poverty.

Chris Hayes is the host of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

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