Mar 1 2009

The Online Predator Scare

Profiting from the panic

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/aranarth

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/aranarth

There is money to be made from fear—and business has been good for those hawking the online child predator threat.

Exploiters of the scare range from the Internet-policing groups who ferret out suspects and share information with authorities (and sometimes, for a fee, with journalists) to vendors of software intended to help parents monitor and restrict web use. Some of the biggest beneficiaries are TV companies that feature salacious segments on how predators stalk the web in hopes of arranging live liaisons with their young prey. Of course, it’s all in the spirit of public service and protecting the children, right?

CNN says so: “It’s a scary reality. Your children are vulnerable to predators online,” remarked CNN’s Gerri Willis (7/28/07), reporting on “the need to increase awareness of online predators.”

And Bill O’Reilly (Fox News, 10/4/07) says it’s a big problem, too: “Every day we’re seeing kids molested, murdered, kidnapped because they are meeting people on the Net and then they go meet them in person. And that’s just insane.”

The threat has been the subject of any number of television news magazine segments (ABC’s Nightline, 9/25/08; CBS’s Early Show, 11/22/07), as well as the Fox broadcast network’s America’s Most Wanted (8/8/09, 1/3/09, 2/6/09).

But it’s an NBC show that gets the top award for ceaseless flogging of the theme.

If you wanted to watch something besides football last Super Bowl Sunday, you could tune into MSNBC’s “Predator Bowl”—12 hours of wall-to-wall episodes of NBC Dateline’s popular (if critically scorched) To Catch a Predator. The show features men who have talked dirty on the Internet with actors posing as minors. The men are lured by the actors to supposed live liaisons, where Dateline anchor Chris Hansen grills them about their motives and reads their smutty letters back to them—and, voyeuristically, to the viewers. Each episode ends with the subject being tackled by waiting police.

The show was always a mess from the point of journalism. It created news rather than reporting it, it surrendered its independence by working hand-in-glove with police agencies, and it paid sources. (NBC paid hundreds of thousand of dollars to the online policing group Perverted Justice for information and help in setting up stings.) Moreover, the show’s week-in and week-out pounding on the same theme suggested it had less to do with journalism and public service than with pandering for ratings through salacious exploitation.

But appeals to journalism ethics left NBC News executives unmoved until one of the show’s stings resulted in the suicide of a target: a former Texas prosecutor who had allegedly engaged in online sexual conversations with one of Dateline’s “minors.” When the subject failed to show at the arranged rendezvous/sting, he was tracked by police and NBC to his home. As they arrived, he shot himself to death (New York Times, 6/26/08).

In addition to the suicide, for which NBC paid an out-of-court settlement, there were embarrassing reports that many of the “cases” in which Dateline had been involved had been thrown out of court, reportedly because NBC’s and Perverted Justice’s involvement interfered with proper police evidence-gathering procedures (20/20, 9/7/07; AP, 6/28/07).

This was finally enough to get NBC News to cancel production of the show in December 2008—but not quite enough to get them to stop airing it. Since its cancellation, Predator has lived on in perpetual reruns on NBC’s cable outlet MSNBC, with the “Predator Bowl” merely the program’s most prominent recent showcase.

To Catch a Predator might be dismissed as just a sleazy scramble for ratings, but its producers claim to be motivated by a genuine journalistic concern. Predator host Chris Hansen says the threat is “an epidemic” (Dateline, 12/23/06), that “the scope of the problem is immense” (, 11/3/05) and it “seems to be getting worse” (Dateline, 12/16/05). On his MSNBC blog, the anchor claimed that “one in five children online is solicited for sex by an adult” (2/6/06) and “at any given time, 50,000 predators are on the Internet prowling for children” (11/3/05).

This would all seem highly newsworthy, not to mention alarming. But the fact is that researchers reject these claims—and with them the show’s journalistic premise.

According to a new report from Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society (Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies, 12/31/08), while online solicitation of children by adult strangers does exist, it is a much smaller threat than Hansen and others have claimed.

The researchers, examining existing research, found that roughly 1 percent of minors were threatened by online advances from adult strangers, and that the small cohort that were most threatened had home situations such as drug abuse or absent or disengaged parents that put them at higher risk in all aspects of their lives, online and off. The Harvard study concluded that minors were under greater risk from online harassment and bullying by their peers than from adult sexual “predators.”

So where did Hansen and others (e.g., ABC News, 5/3/06;, 4/20/06) get the claims that “one in five” minors have been sexually solicited by adults online, or that “50,000 predators” are trolling the Internet right now?

In the first case, by distorting the findings of a 2000 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. That study, surveying 1,501 minor Internet users (aged 10 to 17), found that 19 percent of them reported “at least one instance of unwanted sex talk (from other teenagers), or sex talk from an adult (whether wanted or not), in the past year.” Eighty-two percent of such contacts came from other minors, so the proportion of minors who had an online sexual episode with an adult was more like 1 in 30 than 1 in 5.

And the researchers were asking about contacts that fell short of actual sexual solicitation. What the researchers called “aggressive sexual solicitation” accounted for just 3 percent of overall contacts—but, since 66 percent of those approaches were by peers, the actual instance of minors who were aggressively sexually solicited by adults on the Internet was roughly 1 percent.

The survey did not turn up a single example of a minor who ended up meeting an adult for sexual purposes as a result of these online activities.

Harvard’s 2008 study clarified the point further:

Other peers and young adults account for 90 percent-94 percent of solicitations in which approximate age is known. Also, many acts of solicitation online are harassing or teasing communications that are not designed to seduce youth into offline sexual encounters; 69 percent of solicitations involve no attempt at offline contact. Misperception of these findings perpetuates myths that distract the public from solving the actual problems youth face.

And the “50,000 predators” figure? In a thorough report on the predator scare and the media’s role in it (9/06), Skeptical Inquirer magazine’s Benjamin Radford explained how the NBC anchor more or less concocted the number, which had been repeated in influential circles:

As it turns out, Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales had taken his 50,000 Web predator statistic not from any government study or report, but from NBC’s Dateline TV show. Dateline, in turn, had broadcast the number several times without checking its accuracy. In an interview on NPR’s On the Media program [5/26/06], Hansen admitted that he had no source for the statistic, and stated that “it was attributed to, you know, law enforcement, as an estimate, and it was talked about as sort of an extrapolated number.”

Radford concluded that the predator scare fits the definition of a “moral panic,” a sociological term “describing a social reaction to a false or exaggerated threat to social values by moral deviants.” The evidence certainly suggests that the online child predator scare would fit comfortably alongside such other greatly exaggerated or concocted threats as the Salem Witch Trials, the Satanic ritual murder scare and the crack baby epidemic (Extra!, 9-10/98). But in this case, the panic is not just being driven by outrage over an alleged threat to the moral order, but by the profit motives of an industry directly exploiting the scare.