Freakonomics and MySpace abductions.
July 2, 2008 5:27 PM   Subscribe

I live in Vermont. I work in a small town that has been directly affected by the recent Brooke Bennett tragedy (family involved 12 year old in sex ring and killed her, attempted to blame it on a MySpace predator) in an industry that is directly related to dealing with the aftermath. I am also reading Freakonomics, which amongst other things has persuaded me to look past media hype and compare numbers to actual relevant data. I have two questions

1. How many children a year are kidnapped/abducted that can be directly attributed to social networking sites online vs other baseline statistics (how many children's parents kidnap them, how many children are killed due to negligence such as not belting kids in).

2. (Completely hypothetical) Given say a $500,000 grant to promote child safety, where would the money most be effective in comparative ranking to "ZOMG MYSPACE" alerts and education.

Are online predators really any statistical danger, or just an easy and new headline.
posted by SirStan to Human Relations (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

As someone who works in that same town, this has been on my mind a lot too. danah boyd talks about this a little bit in part of her research on social networking and social spaces. I heard Cory Doctorow mention it at the American Library Association conference this weekend and just now got around to looking it up.
predators lurk wherever youth hang out. Since youth are on MySpace, there are bound to be predators on MySpace. Yet, predators do not use online information to abduct children; children face a much higher risk of abduction or molestation from people they already know – members of their own family or friends of the family. Statistically speaking, kids are more at risk at a church picnic or a boy scout outing than they are when they go on MySpace. Less than .01% of all youth abductions nationwide are stranger abductions and as far as we know, no stranger abduction has occurred because of social network services. The goal of a predator is to get a child to consent to sexual activities. Predators contact teens (online and offline) to start a conversation. Just as most teens know to say no to strange men who approach them on the street, most know to ignore strange men who approach them online. When teenagers receive solicitations from adults on MySpace, most report deleting them without question. Those who report responding often talk about looking for attention or seeking a risk. Of those who begin conversations, few report meeting these strangers.

The media often reference a Crimes Against Children report that states one in five children receive a sexual solicitation online. A careful reading of this report shows that 76% of the unwanted solicitations came from fellow children. This includes unwanted date requests and sexual taunts from fellow teens. Of the adult solicitations, 96% are from people 18-25; wanted and unwanted solicitations are both included. In other words, if an 18 year old asks out a 17 year old and both consent, this would still be seen as a sexual solicitation. Only 10% of the solicitations included a request for a physical encounter; most sexual solicitations are for cybersex. While the report shows that a large percentage of youth are faced with uncomfortable or offensive experiences online, there is no discussion of how many are faced with uncomfortable or offensive experiences at school, in the local shopping mall or through other mediated channels like telephone.
posted by jessamyn at 5:55 PM on July 2, 2008 [10 favorites]

oh... I'm speechless. I just found out through your post (and subsequently the the fate of Brooke... heart breaking. that's all.
posted by vermontlife at 6:39 PM on July 2, 2008

I can speak with a LITTLE bit of authority here since I have 3 years of experience working with kids. Not the kind of experience where you can tell the difference between clothes for 5 year olds and 7 year olds, or the difference between an A student and a C student...but the kind of experience where kids for the first time reveal their physical or sexual abuse, their first time experience with drugs or alcohol that happened yesterday, sex stuff that floored me (this was a few years ago, when I was in my mid-20s...and I couldnt believe that 13 year olds knew about orgies), and just other surprising stuff because they felt comfortable with you.

And yes, I was a mandated reporter.

Honestly, kids know about the dangers involved with online friends. Even the young kids (7 year olds) knew where NOT to go. The older kids who were into myspace, friendster, and other social networking sites used that mostly as a virtual world where they were different than the real world. I'm not talking about some spelling-bee geniuses, I'm talking about the run-of-the-mill almost at-risk youth. The online world was somewhere they could go to tell the world about all their cool stuff (just went to THAT show), and hide all their uncool stuff (everyone makes fun of my messed up I never post any pictures that show me smiling).

Kids are smart about that. Surprisingly, smart.

Of all the days where I had to write a report, go to court, talk to the police, tell the parents some horrific news, or call up other kids finding out the whereabouts of a potential runaway...I have NEVER dealt with a " predator has kidnapped my 16 year old daughter". Never Ever.

Does it happen...hell yeah! Does it happen as often as you would assume so because of the news? HELL NO!

What I do see a LOT of...a lot, a lot, a a a SURPRISING amount of family members who are willing to HURT the kids. I'm not talking about hurt feelings, mean words, or even some neglect, I'm talking sexual abuse. I'm talking about HORRIFIC physical abuse. Wierd, weird stuff like that. It got to the point, that I once thought "oh my god...if I have kids, the safest person I can have babysit them is anybody that isn't a family member or friend. Strangers are no danger".

Just like the statistics you hear about most rape is not a blitz rape, most rape is confidence rape (Its way more likely that you get raped by someone you trust and know, than by a stranger in a dark alley), its like that with kids too. Kids (I use that term loosely 4-17 year olds), in MY experience, are WAY more likely to be hurt by people they know (and are trusted by the parents), then they are by people that they don't know.

I hope other people who HAVE legit experience with kids write in. They will prolly have the same kind of experiences I had. I'm also guessing parents who watch the news on a regular basis, won't have any experience with this...and will support the myth of the myspace abductor. And by the way...the 3 years experience that I had was in the midwest, and west coast. The kids came from families that were on welfare, and families whose parents were both tenured faculty at a local college. All sorts of different backgrounds...but only one are hurt by those they know (and those whom their parents trust).

Good luck...everybody!
posted by hal_c_on at 7:13 PM on July 2, 2008 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: VermontLife,

My apologies that I broke the news via MeFi. I wish you well.
posted by SirStan at 7:16 PM on July 2, 2008

Another Vermonter here, shocked by that whole affair. More sordid details to be brought out tomorrow, presumably, including the involvement of not only the uncle but the stepfather, and another girl in a "sex ring" for the last four years who watched TV with the victim for a while at the predator's house, then left with her boyfriend after the perp took the victim upstairs. Unbelievable.

Have a look at this post. There's some info and discussion there on the stats question, but if you work down the thread it seems to boil down to 4400 annual cases of actual non-family abduction, in the US per year, of which 115 were "stereotypical" stranger kidnappings.

How to spend a $500,000 grant? Produce and distribute videos of the kind described in that post.
posted by beagle at 7:26 PM on July 2, 2008

It makes you wonder how many real children could be saved if the police agencies would stop trolling for preverts on myspace and actually go into the schools, streets, malls to patrol... It seems to me that this is a subject more than ready for a Freakonomics style analysis.
posted by gjc at 8:53 PM on July 2, 2008

i'm 2,000 miles away from vermont, but i'm so saddened and i'm so very sorry. not only for the family, but for the whole freakin' human race that is apparently so fragile it can mutant into such depravity. i don't know whether to feel embarrassed for humanity or ashamed that i probably live near or work with or somehow interact with a perpetrator or a victim and i don't know it. and i don't know if i don't know because i really don't know it, or if i don't know it because i really don't want to know it.

when i was in high school, one of the upperclassmen in my band class came to school one day wearing a turtleneck and with a bandage on her neck. she was hoarse & had trouble talking. i asked her what happened, and she said someone--i can't remember exactly who, but someone in her family--had choked her. as she was talking, she pulled down the turtleneck and then pulled down the bandage and there were big, red hand marks on her neck. i was speechless. and embarrassed. and frightened. and i wondered then and i wonder now why none of the adults *did* anything about it.

maybe the education should be aimed not at the children, but at adults.
posted by msconduct at 9:36 PM on July 2, 2008

Statistically speaking, kids are more at risk at a church picnic or a boy scout scouting than they are when they go on MySpace.

This is the sort of partisan hyperbole that makes makes Cory Doctorow and his internet ass-kissing completely uninteresting to me.

Yeah. MySpace may not present a bigger risk that the local Catholic priest, but it presents an ADDITIONAL risk. These risks, like exposure to radiation, are cumulative.

And you can look at statistics all you want, but do not (like the clowns who wrote that book) forget the impact of skewness - especially when children are involved.
posted by three blind mice at 2:25 AM on July 3, 2008

I may as well take this opportunity to pimp my paper on this very topic, as it's quite lengthy and goes into these "statistics" in depth. Basic conclusion: there is little or no significant problem of online predators, and the fear about them falls into a well-known pattern of freaking out over young people's technology use. MySpace has more than 100 million user accounts, so of course some of those will be held by dicey people, but the vast majority of teens never encounter any sort of problems and those who are contacted by age-inappropriate people ignore them the vast majority of the time.

Saying "you can looking at statistics all you want BUT" is a well known rhetorical technique that pretty much says "I know this isn't right, but I believe it anyway because I want to."
posted by alicetiara at 5:17 AM on July 3, 2008

Saying "you can looking at statistics all you want BUT" is a well known rhetorical technique that pretty much says "I know this isn't right, but I believe it anyway because I want to."

Ahem. Skewness is a well-known measure of asymmetry.

In other words, if there is a 1 in 100 chance that my daughter will be molested by some person in Vermont and 1 in 1000 chance that she will fall victim to a predator via MySpace, as a human being, I cannot dispassionately assess these risks as unequal as you would have me do. Cold hearted as I am.

Numbers do not tell the whole story alicetiara, nor should they blindly dictate how people feel or react. That would be freaky.

there is little or no significant problem of online predators,

The predators in this case used MySpace to faciliate their crime. Whilst in view of the family relationship the crime may have been committed without MySpace it is dishonest to view MySpace as completey innocent of involvement, or that it was not an powerful enabler for these criminals.

Go pimp your paper on some other street.
posted by three blind mice at 6:30 AM on July 3, 2008

Re #2: There is a theory that raw milk (before pasteurization and homogonization) is safer than the current stuff because of all the good bacteria in it being able to fight off the bad. Pasteurization kills the good bacteria as well as the bad, leaving it ripe for anything to move in and spoil it.

We do this with kids, over protecting them to a point where they lack survival skills. They're adults in training. Train them, and give them something to work with such as neighborhood watches and the like. My parent's gave me a whole hierarchy of who it was safe to go to if I needed help. Cops & teachers, librarians & clergy, trusted neighbors, anyone who looked motherly, and finally anyone. Cops through trusted neighbors can be organized.

For training: Theory of mind (TM) was pushed relentlessly, to the point that at 30 what I see on my way too long commute on the roads isn't problem A or problem B, but a continuing story of people's expectations either being met or not, and their reactions to them. The base "if everyone jumped off of a bridge would you?" teaches TM in an unorganized way.

Lastly a safety position never hurts. When I was having problems with two school bullies I asked my dad to teach me how to fight. The smartest thing he ever did was tell me I was to use diplomacy up to the point where I was in impending danger physically (sexual abuse counted), and then I was to run to one of the people above, and if in danger of dying I could fight to kill. And he taught me that. But the bar for violence has been pushed so far out that I've never seriously considered harming someone, let alone killing them. I found out later most of his siblings were a "problem", so I know why he did this, and it worked.

Horrible teacher of diplomacy though. I had to figure that out myself, and it's still a work in process. After I pointed out to the bullies that they lived in a mobile home like me, at the time, and were no better off than me so find someone else to hassle, I never had problems with them again. More importantly I did that without earning a place in juvie.

The end result was the few times I was in danger from others (mostly murder/suicide type stuff) I used my brains to get out and stop them too. Records still 100%. Not many people looking to abuse chubby redheaded boys with a predilection for mayhem though.
posted by jwells at 6:41 AM on July 3, 2008

The predators in this case used MySpace to faciliate their crime.

Actually no, MySpace helped solve this crime. What the predators did was used MySpace to try to cover up this crime by logging in to the girl's MySpace page and attempt to update it as her after she had already been killed. The fact that their IP addresses (handed over by MySpace) showed up on the updates was part of what helped law enforcement track down not just the perpetrator, but other people related to the larger conspiracy that was not just this missing girl. The early media reports, based on the best information available at the time, were wrong. The girl communicated with the predators via phone and in person [and maybe also MySpace] they were her FAMILY members. You can read the affadavit from the FBI (pdf) if you want to. Warning, it's disturbing.

Please take this to MetaTalk if you just want to complain about the topic or argue with other posters.
posted by jessamyn at 6:48 AM on July 3, 2008

"How many children a year are kidnapped/abducted that can be directly attributed to social networking sites." Would be a tough call - probably cases where kids know of someone from a live situation (friend's older brother, etc.) and that person then uses facebook to get closer but then the reporting would show only the facebook. Vice-versa cases where someone used a school network to find a likely kid, and then sniffed them out in real life and the reporting on the case did not fine the online trail. And you have, really, just not that many cases of these crimes.
And you've got cases where kidnappings are very much family affairs but for whatever reason the paperwork on that case shows it as the non-family members, like the bio father's brother-in-law did a snatch because things get messy, even when no one was actually hurt, or even that upset.

Negligence can mean a lot of things in a lot of jurisdictions.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:11 PM on July 3, 2008

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