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1/14/2009
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Report: Online Sexual Predators Less A Threat Than Bullies

Internet Safety Technical Task Force report on children's online safety concludes there's no silver bullet technology for protecting kids

Kids may be more at risk of abuse from other kids online that once thought, according to a wide-ranging new report released today by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, a group commissioned by state attorneys general to study online threats to minors and potential technology solutions.

The task force, created in February 2008 to explore possible technologies for keeping children safe on the Internet, concluded in its report, "Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies," that online bullying is the top threat to kids on the Internet (as is offline bullying), and not all kids are at equal risk online. It's not the Internet itself, but the child's environment that's a real indicator of their risk, the report says: "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," the report says.

Sexual predators online and offline are still a concern, the report says, and more research is needed on sex offenders in social networks and other online spaces.

The task force, which was headed by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, included AOL/Bebo, AT&T, Center for Democracy & Technology, Comcast, ConnectSafely.org, Enough Is Enough, Facebook, Family Online Safety Institute, Google, Microsoft, MySpace, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Symantec, Verizon, and Yahoo.

Interestingly, the report says while the Internet includes illegal and harmful content, kids online aren't always facing increased exposure to this type of content. "Unwanted exposure to pornography does occur online, but those most likely to be exposed are those seeking it out, such as older male minors," the report said, pointing to other types of content that minors could be exposed to. "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."

And social networking sites are not commonly used for solicitation and exposure to "problematic content," according to the task force report. But they are a hotbed for bullying -- "most likely because they are broadly adopted by minors and are used primarily to reinforce pre-existing social relations."

Among other things, the task force also concluded that no single technology solution is a silver bullet to protecting kids online, and that mandating age verification technology won't work. And according to task force member Symantec, it takes more than parental control software to keep children safe online. "A parent cannot download software programs into a computer and expect that their work is done. Filtering and monitoring technologies are an essential element of child online safety, but only when they are coupled with the active involvement and participation of parents and schools to configure the software correctly, update that software, and carefully monitor the Web sites children are accessing," Symantec said.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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