Internet not full of pedos, the statistical edition

Last month, a research project into risks to kids from social media, commissioned by several State Attorneys General, concluded that there wasn't really much risk of pedophiles stalking kids online. Rather, kids are at risk from each other. And some kids are at risk of soliciting sex and relationships with young adults, due to their own insecurities.

This conclusion angered many who sincerely believe that the Internet is full of pedophiles, and they're attacking the study. danah boyd, one of the researchers, responds:

Now, let's do some math. The National Alert Registry has over 491,000 registered sex offenders on its list. In data collected in December, Pew found that 35% of American adults are on social network sites. If sex offenders were a representative population, we'd expect that 172,000 of them would be on social network sites. Now, I know nothing of who is on that list, but if they were to skew younger or more urban, we'd expect even more of them to be on those sites. Regardless, the number announced by MySpace should not be unexpected or shocking.

One of the worst parts of dealing with quantitative numbers of any kind is our tendency to read into them what we want to read into them. We see a number like 90,000 and expect that it's high and outrageous. But it is not more than would be expected by statistical patterns. And it's not an automatic indicator of a problem. We need to know WHO those registered sex offenders are and WHAT they are doing to get a critical assessment of the risk. By focusing solely on the number, we introduce a red herring and, in doing so, miss the whole point of our report: there are children online engaging in risky behavior who desperately need our help. Blocking adults who have raped other adults, while likely desirable in general, does NOTHING to help at-risk kids.

Why are we so obsessed with the registered sex offender side of the puzzle when the troubled kids are right in front of us? Why are we so obsessed with the Internet side of the puzzle when so many more kids are abused in their own homes? I feel like this whole conversation has turned into a distraction. Money and time is being spent focusing on the things that people fear rather than the very real and known risks that kids face. This breaks my heart.

doing the math on MySpace and registered sex offenders