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The Moral Panic over Social-Networking Sites

Critics call the Deleting Online Predators Act an election-year stunt that could do lasting damage to youth culture and education.

The social-networking site MySpace has 95 million registered users. If it were a country, it would be the 12th largest in the world (ranking between Mexico and the Philippines). But under a bill designed to combat sexual predators on the Internet, MySpace and similar sites would become countries that young people can’t visit – at least not using computers at schools or libraries.

Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook will be off-limits from schools and libraries if a bill in Congress to limit online sexual predators is enacted. (Credit: istockphoto.com/ariusz)

The Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May by Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA), was passed by a vote of 410 to 15 on July 26. It requires, with few exemptions, that facilities receiving federal aid block minors from accessing commercial social-networking sites and chat rooms, where they might encounter adults seeking sexual contact.

The bill has now moved on to the Senate. Critics from the worlds of educational technology and media studies say they’re alarmed that the legislation has advanced this far. They warn that it would do little to stop sexual predators, but would deprive youth from poor areas of their only access to the online communities that are an increasingly critical part of teen culture. To these critics, the act is an election-year stunt designed to make any member of Congress who opposes it look “soft” on sexual predators.

It’s a “monumentally ill-considered piece of legislation” that “by any rational measure” should never have left the House, says Henry Jenkins, professor of literature and director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. Jenkins believes the act plays on parents’ lack of understanding, and their resulting fears, about their kids’ activities on the Internet. “But the price of standing up to that fear may be too high for liberal Democrats,” he says.

If the Senate approves a similar bill and the legislation reaches President Bush’s desk, the price to young people will be even higher, say Jenkins and other critics. “If it would actually prevent predation, I would be fine with it,” says Danah Boyd, a PhD candidate in the School of Information Management Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, who is considered one of the leading scholarly authorities on social-networking sites. “But it’s not going to help at all. Out of 300,000 child abductions every year, only 12 are by strangers. This is just going to stifle the social-networking industry and completely segment youth around economic status.”

The impact on youth from economically disadvantaged families is what Jenkins worries about most. “Already, you have a gap between kids who have 10 minutes of Internet access a day at the public library and kids who have 24-hour-a-day access at home,” he says. “Already, we have filters in libraries [required under the Child Internet Protection Act of 2001] blocking access to much of the Internet. Now we’re talking about adding even more restrictions. It exaggerates the ‘participation gap’ – not a technology gap, but a difference in access to the defining cultural experiences that take place around technology today.”

Current Internet filters at schools and libraries – some aimed at pornography and obscene materials, some already targeting social-networking sites – have “a tremendous chilling effect on education,” agrees Jeff Cooper, an educational-technology consultant and former high-school teacher in Portland, OR. “The ‘Just Say No’ philosophy has never worked,” Cooper says. “You’re lumping all social networking into the negative basket, and not giving kids any alternative. But there is so much good stuff online that nobody ever talks about.”

Indeed, while it might be easy to agree that teens shouldn’t be wasting time on MySpace or other social-networking sites while they’re at school, DOPA would cover any site that allows networking and chatting. As one example, Cooper points to TappedIn.org, a social-networking and professional-development site for teachers. Students often use personal and public “rooms” on the site as part of virtual classroom activities. “It allows teachers to bring their students online in a very safe and secure environment,” explains Cooper. “My concern isn’t really that MySpace won’t be accessible from schools, but that other sites like TappedIn will be banned.”

DOPA supporters frequently cite a 2000 report about online sexual victimization funded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which concluded that one-fifth of children have been sexually solicited in chat rooms, by instant message, or by e-mail. But in fact, as Boyd and other opponents point out, the same report states that most solicitations come from other young people – only 4 percent are from adults over 25 – and that most kids deal with these solicitations simply by not answering or logging off. “To clamp down on a bunch of new networking sites really doesn’t do anything” to stop sexual predators, says Cooper. “You might as well shut off the Internet entirely.”

Opponents of DOPA misunderstand the bill, says Jeff Urbanchuck, a press officer for Representative Fitzpatrick. He says it is intended only to reduce the risk to teens from one particular category of websites – those where members can create online profiles and fill them with personal details, including e-mail or instant-messaging addresses, that help predators contact them. Critics are “extending beyond the MySpaces and Facebooks and arguing that the technology of social networking is so pervasive now that the Internet is going to become one big social-networking site,” Urbanchuck says. “But the objective of the bill is to deal with the growing threat of online predators on specific sites that allow profiles. We want to tailor the bill to those sites.”

Even banning access just to sites that allow profiles, however, would affect scores of educational, community, and media-sharing sites, including sites as popular as Flickr and as specialized as TappedIn. And in the longer term, predicts Boyd, the law would simply drive teen networking underground, where it would be more difficult for adults to monitor. “They’ll be moving from site to site with a level of ephemerality that no one can keep up with,” she says. “Not the cops – not even the designers of the technology.”

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