Online predators and moral panics June 11, 2008Posted by Malene Charlotte Larsen in Arto, Internet Safety, Moral panic, MySpace, News media.
The past couple of weeks the Danish social network site for teenagers, Arto, has repeatedly appeared in the news media. This is due to the fact that a journalist from the Danish tabloid newspaper Ekstra Bladet created a false profile on Arto where she pretended to be a 13 year old girl and got into contact with a number of older men. During a year the undercover journalist communicated through MSN Messenger with four older men (from the age of 35 – 72) who all had a keen interest in meeting the girl IRL. The correspondence between the men and the apparent 13 year old girl had many sexual undertones and some of the men openly indicated that they wanted to have sex with, what they believed was, the 13 year old girl.
When the physical meetings were finally arranged the news paper revealed the truth and the following days they published a number of articles where they – one by one and with video documentation – exposed the men as predators and child molesters.
We have previously seen similar stories in the Danish news media, and the purpose of this blog post is not to comment on these specific news stories, which are part of the ongoing moral panic, which I commented on in an article I wrote in October 2006. However, the public debate that follows sensational cases like these is interesting.One of the first questions on people’s minds is, understandable enough, “What can we do to prevent these predators from coming into contact with children and young people?”. Often, the discourses that people draw on when answering that question circle around surveillance, control and technical security measures.
When I am asked about these issues (which I was quite a lot in the wake of these latest news stories – e.g. here, here and here) I refer to the kind of self-regulation that the users already practice on Arto and the fact that most of them know how to behave when strange men contact them online; that is ignoring the messages, blocking or reporting the strange users. Very few of the teenagers on Arto would keep on communicating with an older man who turned out to have these ulterior motives, let alone meet him IRL. To ensure this, the most important precautions are information and communication between parent and their children.
However, the public debate is often preoccupied with what technical precautions we can take or how we can legally regulate or prevent these things from happening. Often, this becomes a political issue as well.
It is interesting to see that the exact same debate goes on in other countries. In a paper just published in First Monday, PhD Candidate Alice Marwick examines what she labels “technopanics” (panic over the uses of new computer-mediated technologies used by youngsters). Here she shows that, in the U.S., there are direct links between media coverage and Internet content legislation. Especially, Marwick focuses on the media–fueled moral panic concerning online predators and MySpace, which can be linked to the bill “The Deleting Online Predators Act” (DOPA), which would prohibit schools and libraries from giving minors access to social network sites or chat rooms.
In the paper Marwick concludes that:
… the media should attend to their social responsibility when covering technology. While new discoveries almost always have both benefits and disadvantages, breathless negative coverage of technology frightens parents, prevents teenagers from learning responsible use, and fuels panics, resulting in misguided or unconstitutional legislation. […] … teenagers should be encouraged in their use of technology. Technological skills are advantageous both in terms of social capital and job prospects, and we should promote technological knowledge among young people rather than discouraging it. […] Taking a nuanced, informed, and gradual approach to the social integration of new technologies will do more to lessen harm and improve responsible user practice than a panicked, emotional response.
I could not have said it better myself. The paper is called “To catch a predator? The MySpace moral panic” and can be read here.