Protecting Children Online
By Gerry Chudleigh
In the 1990s, as millions of people began using E-mail, almost everyone received regular urgent messages that came to be known as "Urban Legends." From these bogus messages readers learned that hundreds, or perhaps millions, of people were being kidnapped so their organs could be harvested and sold to hospitals, people were putting AIDS-infected hypodermic needles in the change return slots of pay phones, etc. Each scary message ended with a warning to stop doing some previously normal activity.
In 2007 a very frightening urban legend began circulating among Adventist church and school leaders who work with Web sites. According to this story, millions of children are being abducted every year in the United States as a result of personal information about them--perhaps only their photo and full name--being displayed on Web sites. The advice: never put a child's photo and name on a website.
Fortunately, this story is completely false.
It is my purpose here to do two things:
- Correct the urban legend with readily available and reliable information.
- Suggest reasonable policies that churches, schools and other Adventist organizations should adopt to protect the children in their care from the very real dangers that interactive Web sites pose for children, especially for teens.
1. The Millions of Missing Children Myth
According to a PowerPoint presentation shown in several parts of the North American Division in 2007:
- "...A child goes missing every 40 seconds in the U.S, over 2,100 per day" (OJJDP).
- In 2005 662,196 children were reported lost, runaway, or kidnapped (ncmec).
- 2/3 of all missing children reports were for youths aged 15-17 (ncmec).
- 2/5 missing children ages 15-17 are abducted due to Internet activity (ICAC).
- Do the math--over 2 million teens age 15-17 are abducted due to Internet activity"
If you do the math. as suggested, you will calculate that 7.5 million children are abducted every year in U.S., that 5 million of them are 15, 16 and 17 years of age, and that two million of these older teenagers are abducted because of internet activity. Presumably the remaining 2.5 million children abducted every year are 14 years of age or younger.
To put this in perspective:
- According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are only about 15 million 15-, 16- and 17-year olds in the country (five million each). If one-third of them are being abducted every year someone should have noticed it, especially teachers. If 15, 16 and 17 years olds are being abducted at uniform rates, there should be far fewer 16 year olds than 15 year olds, and there should be very few 17 year olds who make it to their 18th birthday. Obviously, this is not the case. We do not lament during eighth grade graduations that only about one-fourth of the student will survive to graduate from high school.
- 7.5 million is more than 2 percent of the U.S. population. If that many children are being abducted, a medium-sized town of 100,000 would have more than 2,000 abduction per year, or about six per day. Obviously this is not the case.
But we are not left to guess. In 1988 the United States Department of Justice (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) conducted an intensive study to get "a clear picture of how many children become missing--and why...." In 1999 they did the study again, but much more thoroughly and carefully. The studies are known as NISMART-1 (National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway Children) and NISMART-2. The first report of NISMART-2, An Overview, was published in 2002, followed by a series of other reports, each devoted to a specific category--including one on Nonfamily Abducted Children, also published in 2002. All these reports can be found in PDF format at ojjdp.ncjrs.gov/ojstatbb/publications/StatBB.asp. Select "Juveniles as Victims."
Key NISMART-2 Findings
NISMART-2 gathered information from four overlapping studies: a national households survey of adults, a national households survey of youth, a law enforcement study and a juvenile facilities study. It is important to understand the household surveys, conducted by telephone, because those interviews with 16,000 adults and 5,000 minors contributed to the large numbers of missing children reported in the study. Adults and minors were asked if at any time in the previous 12 months they knew of any minor whose location was not known for at least one hour, and whose caretaker was concerned for a period of one hour or longer, and whose caretaker sought help in finding the minor. Quotes from the Overview:
- "The total number of children who were missing from their caretakers in 1999, including children who were reported missing and those who were not, is estimated to be 1,315,600." (5)
- "Nearly all of the caretaker missing children (1,312,800 or 99.8 percent) were returned home alive or located by the time the study data were collected. Only a fraction of a percent (0.2 percent or 2,500) of all caretaker missing children had not returned home or been located, and the vast majority of these were runaways from institutions who had been identified through the Juvenile Facilities Study." (6)
- "Of all caretaker missing children, nearly one-half (48 percent) were missing because of a runaway/thrownaway episode. More than one-fourth (28 percent) became missing as a result of benign explanation circumstances (miscommunications or misunderstandings between child and caretaker). Children who were missing because they became lost or injured accounted for 15 percent of all caretaker missing children. Less than one-tenth (9 percent) of caretaker missing children were abducted by family members, and only 3 percent were abducted by nonfamily perpetrators." (6)
- "Stereotypical kidnappings are the particular type of nonfamily abduction that receives the most media attention and involves a stranger or slight acquaintance who detains the child overnight, transports the child at least 50 miles, holds the child for ransom, abducts the child
with intent to keep the child permanently, or kills the child. They represent an extremely small portion of all missing children. The Law Enforcement Study found that an estimated 115 of the nonfamily abducted children were victims of stereotypical kidnappings and that 90 of these qualified as reported missing." (7)
- "The possibility that stereotypical kidnappings have declined is supported by declining rates of juvenile-victim homicides and of sexual and aggravated assaults in the 1990s. Such crimes include instances of and provide the context for many kidnappings by strangers. However, the current data, given their limitations, cannot be used to confirm this possibility." (Nonfamily Abducted Children, p.12)
- Neither NISMART study mentioned the internet as a factor in nonfamily abductions or stereotypical kidnappings.
According to the urban legend, millions of children are being abducted ["stereotypically kidnapped"] every year in the United States, but according to the best government figures the number is about 115.
The numbers make a difference to webmasters. If millions of children were being abducted (kidnapped) every year, and if the internet played a major part in this, then we might all agree to never include a photo or name of any child on any website--even if they won the national spelling bee, excelled in an athletic event or discovered a cure for cancer.
But if the number is 115, may be declining, and may not be related to internet activity, webmasters can feel safe in following normal and customary practices, as described below:
2. Safe Web site Practices and Recommendations
- Visit www.netsmartz.org for Internet safety ideas and instructional materials for children, parents, teachers, law enforcement personnel and others. This is the Web site of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
- Teach personal Internet safety to your children.
- Value of Publicity: A statement of why communication with your community is important to your organization. For example, increasing the number of students in your school, which will enable the school to add new programs or strengthen the existing ones.
- Excluded Internet Usage: A statement of what information about your children you will normally NOT put on the web. For example, though there is no law forbidding it, you will probably not have a student or member directory online and open to the public. That means visitors cannot go to your site to find a student's photo, address, E-mail address or other contact information.
- Normal Internet Usage: A statement that you will normally post a photo, with name, of a student or member that does something newsworthy. This is done every day in almost every newspaper in America. Also note that unless a parent opts out, the school may send a story with photo and full name of child to the local newspaper or to church publications.
- Opt Out Provision: Explanation of how a parent may choose not to have their child's photo or name or other information posted on the Internet.
- Interactive Web Site Safety -- Your organization will probably not create its own social networking site like FaceBook or MySpace, but there are other ways that your site may provide a way for naive members to post personal information that could get them in trouble and make you liable. Suppose, for example, that you add a Principal's Blog or Pastor's Blog or Camp Director's Blog to your site, and that you allow visible responses from visitors or members. It is not difficult to image that a camp director might ask summer campers to respond with messages about what they liked most about camp. If that site is not monitored at least daily an early teen may respond that what she liked most was that "hot" water ski instructor, and she might post her photo, phone number, email address or other information that would enable anyone to contact her. A predator might contact her directly, posing as a water ski instructor at another Christian camp. After a few weeks or months of conversation, they might agree to meet. Suggestions:
- Never create a way for visitor responses to be visible on your site unless you know it will be monitored on a regular basis, perhaps several times a day.
- Create a screening mechanism that automatically blocks not only bad language, but email addresses, phone numbers and other contact information.
- Make sure members do not use their email address as their screen name.
- Post a clear policy statement of what will and will not be allowed on the site.
- Comply fully with COPPA requirements.
- If you create an interactive site that gathers information from children under the age of 13, have your site reviewed by a lawyer who is familiar with internet law.