U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced a new public-service campaign Aug. 21 that will warn teenage girls against posting information on the internet that could put them at risk of attack by child predators. The ad campaign by the Department of Justice (DOJ), in partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the Ad Council, is slated to run in early 2007.

“Every day, these predators are looking for someone to hurt,” Gonzales said at the 18th annual Crimes Against Children Conference in Dallas. “Every day, we must educate parents and children about the threat.” About 2,700 law-enforcement officials from around the world are attending the conference, which runs through Aug. 24. A third of this year’s 180 workshops are focusing on internet crime and online safety, said Lynn Davis, president and CEO of the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, which is hosting the conference with the Dallas Police Department. The ad campaign, an extension of a DOJ initiative dubbed Project Safe Childhood, will use a series of educational events and public-service announcements to stress the need for teenage internet users to better protect themselves online. The ads reportedly will warn youthful internet users of the dangers inherent in posting images or personal information that might put them at risk for victimization. Project Safe Childhood was created to help law-enforcement and community leaders develop a coordinated strategy to prevent, investigate, and prosecute sexual predators, abusers, and pornographers who target children.

According to a DOJ study, one in seven children using the internet has been sexually solicited, and one in three has been exposed to unwanted sexual material. One in 11 has been harassed. The study, called “Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later,” also found that one in three child internet users had communicated with a stranger online, while one in nine reported forming close relationships with someone they met in cyberspace.

“The existence of online predators is a very real threat for children using the internet,” said Gonzales. “This ad campaign will raise awareness to help safeguard against sexual exploitation and abuse by encouraging children to protect their identities and images when socializing online.”

The newest campaign is actually the third in a recent series sponsored by DOJ.

A separate campaign that warned about the dangers online was developed in 2004, giving advice to parents on how to protect their children from internet predators. That program, called “Help Delete Online Predators,” focused on educating parents about online sexual exploitation. The ads guided parents and guardians on what they can do to help protect their children from online predators and encouraged them to report sexual solicitations to NCMEC officials.

A second series of ads, released in 2005, warned teenage girls about forming online relationships with people they don’t know. Under the slogan, “Don’t Believe the Type,” the ads warned teen girls that online predators are skilled at manipulating youth into potentially exploitative and dangerous situations. Teens also were encouraged to visit a web site–www.cybertipline.com–to learn how to protect themselves and to report incidents.

If recent research is any indication, efforts at DOJ and elsewhere are having an impact.

Although children today reportedly are exposed to more objectionable material online, researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center–the group that worked with DOJ to create the “Online Victimization of Youth” surveys–found during the 2005 survey that children actually are receiving fewer online sexual solicitations. The one-in-seven figure of 2005 is down from nearly 1 in 5 youths in 2000.

The report attributes this to more cautious behavior by young people, fewer of whom went to chat rooms or interacted online with people they did not know. The study’s authors said educational messages and media stories about the dangers of online encounters also have had some benefit.

The findings, from a telephone-based survey sponsored by NCMEC, run counter to recent media reports and congressional hearings suggesting a growing danger of online predators as more youths turn to social-networking sites like MySpace.com.

“It may be a sign people are paying [attention] to warnings they receive about online dangers,” said Janis Wolak, one of the study’s authors and a professor at UNH’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. “They are being more cautious about who they are interacting with online.”

But it wasn’t all good news, she said.

The study found that aggressive solicitations–the ones involving requests for contact by mail, by phone, or in person–remained steady compared with the similar study five years earlier. But online harassment and unwanted exposure to pornography is on the rise, according to the report.

The report defines solicitation broadly as any request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information–as long as it was unwanted or came from an adult. Not all requests were deemed distressing by the young people.

In this latest study of internet users ages 10 to 17, conducted from March 2005 to June 2005 as MySpace began its rapid ascent, 13 percent of respondents reported a sexual solicitation, compared with 19 percent in the 2000 survey. In both studies, about 4 percent of youth reported aggressive solicitations.

Many of the contacts came from other teens rather than adults, and few rose to the level of predation, the survey found.

“A significant portion of what they are calling sexual solicitation is merely teens being teens,” said Nancy Willard, an online safety expert who helps schools develop programs and who was not involved in the study.

Willard said the drop should demonstrate to parents and policy makers that “the dangers are real–but they are not as significant as they have been hyped in recent months.”

Parents, school administrators, and law-enforcement authorities have been increasingly warning of online predators at sites like MySpace, whose youth-oriented visitors are encouraged to expand their circles of friends through messaging tools and personal profile pages.

Lawmakers have responded by trying to restrict access to MySpace and other social-networking sites from schools and libraries that receive certain federal funds. The Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, a bill the House overwhelmingly passed last month, is pending in the Senate (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6307).

Driven largely by word of mouth, MySpace has grown astronomically since its launch in January 2004 and is now the second busiest web site in the United States, according to comScore Media Metrix. The site, owned by News Corp., parent company of the Fox News Network, recently registered its 100 millionth user; about 20 percent are registered as minors, according to the company.

MySpace’s usage was much smaller when the latest survey was conducted, but Wolak said she did not believe the conclusions would be different today. She said solicited kids had been engaging with strangers the same way, be it through a chat room, instant messaging, or a social-networking site. Researchers did find that in more than a quarter of the solicitations, youths were asked to submit sexual photographs of themselves. Some of these exchanges might be a crime under federal child-pornography laws.

In general, youths responded to solicitations simply by leaving a web site, blocking solicitors, or ignoring them. Relatively few incidents, however, were reported to law-enforcement officials or school administrators.

The survey of 1,500 children who had used the internet at least once a month during the previous six months has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, researchers said. Nearly 55,000 households were reached to find enough participants.

Links:

Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center
http://www.dcac.org/

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
http://www.missingkids.com/

Ad Council
http://www.adcouncil.org/

Department of Justice
http://www.usdoj.gov