Take one newly pervasive communications medium that makes some people apprehensive. Add concern about sexual exploitation of children that makes everyone apprehensive. Stir in a few highly publicized cases of pedophiles luring innocent young kids to horrible fates via email or Facebook. Season with echoes of Hansel and Gretel. And what comes out of the oven? Full-blown hysteria that every child with an Internet connection faces substantial risk from sexual predators.

The hysteria may be real. But the actual threat is negligible.

Last year, the attorneys general of 49 states created the Internet Safety Technical Task Force to investigate sexual solicitation of children by molesters who troll for targets using sites popular with kids, among them, MySpace and Facebook. The 278-page report concluded that there's no real problem.

The task force, led by Harvard researchers, looked at reams of scientific data dealing with online sexual predation and found that children and teens were rarely propositioned for sex by adults who made contact via the Internet. In the handful of cases that have been documented-and highly publicized-the researchers found that the victims, almost always older teenagers, were usually willing participants already at risk for exploitation because of family problems, substance abuse, or mental health issues.

The report concluded that MySpace and Facebook "do not appear to have increased minors' overall risk of sexual solicitation." The report said the biggest risk to kids using social networks was bullying by other kids.

"This study shows that online social networks are not bad neighborhoods on the Internet," said John Cardillo, whose company tracks sex offenders. "Social networks are very much like real-world communities that are inhabited mostly by good people who are there for the right reasons."

Not all the participating attorneys general agreed with the report's conclusions. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal charged that "thousands" of convicted sex offenders are members of social networking sites.

That may well be true, but most "convicted sex offenders" are not predators who molest children. In most states. "sex crimes" include exhibitionism, voyeurism, public urination, transvestism, even ownership of a vibrator. In addition, in some states 18-year-old men have been convicted of statutory rape, a sex crime, for having sex with their fully consenting 17-year-old girlfriends.

Meanwhile, in the small number of cases where child molesters have connected with children online, most of the encounters have followed a predictable pattern: online contact, leading to telephone contact, ultimately leading to face-to-face meetings. But notice that those who are up in arms about the supposed hazards of social networking sites seem unconcerned about the key role that the telephone plays in the sexual exploitation of children. Why is that?

I think it's because the telephone is an old technology fully integrated into our culture. The Internet is still new, and kids use it more than adults, which makes many adults nervous that something nefarious must be going on. But according to the attorneys general report, next to nothing is.

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