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Chapter 4: Danger - Are sexual predators lurking everywhere? (review by Jeremy Smyczek)

Part of the HASTAC Scholars Collaborative Book Review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd

Review of Chapter 4, Danger - Are Sexual Predators Lurking Everywhere?

Jeremy Smyczek, University of Texas

“Are Sexual Predators Lurking Everywhere?” speaks to the broad aims of It’s Complicated by informing a generation of worried adults about the effects of digital networks on issues of child and teen safety online. It’s both a specific task in reference to particular technologies (which, as boyd admits, may or may not be relevant much past the book’s publication), but also a more general salvo in the long fight against techno-hysteria. Boyd points out in her introduction that “Any new technology that captures widespread attention is likely to provoke serious hand wringing, if not full-blown panic” (14). And although “digital native” and “digital immigrant” are problematic terms—besides the loaded associations with actual geographic immigration, they ignore the blurry lines between younger and older technology users—they scratch at a reality: “scholars and students, parents and educators, journalists and librarians” (25), boyd’s stated audience for the book, tend to judge technologies beyond their ken by their worst effects and examples first. In doing so, they forget that the means (technological or otherwise) by which they socialized in their own formative years were equally worrying to their elders. As boyd argues, “The particular practices that emerge as teens use the tools around them create the impression that teen sociality is radically different even though the underlying motivations and social processes have not changed that much” (13).

Never is this apparent difference more apparent than in current discussions of online predation. In popular media accounts (e.g. the notorious NBC Dateline program To Catch a Predator), the internet is replete with actual and potential felons seeking to take children and teens from their homes through guile or abduction with the intent to perform sexual violence—an extension of parental fears over previous public spaces such as malls and parks that boyd terms “stranger danger.” A widely reported statistic to this effect suggests that one in five teens report encountering sexual solicitation online (boyd 111). The reality, says boyd, looks very little like this:

Internet-initiated sexual assaults are rare. The overall number of sex crimes against minors has been steadily declining since 1992, which also suggests that the internet is not creating a new plague. At the same time, fear-based advertising campaigns continue to propagate the belief that the internet has introduced a new flood of predators into the living rooms of families across the United States.

In this important respect, fears of internet-based predation are merely reflective of the beliefs of the larger culture, in which fear of violent street crime has escalated in the face of decades of falling violent crime rates. It goes outside the scope of boyd’s chapter to examine whether the internet has actually been positively correlated to this decline, but the contrast between the perception and the reality is noteworthy in any case.

This is not to say that boyd dismisses the problem of online-initiated, adult-teen sexual situations altogether, but rather she explains that they tend to be reflective of conditions that originate offline: noting that statutory rape in which both parties report consent is the most common form of reported sex crime initiated online, boyd notes, “What motivates teens to engage in these power-laden sexual encounters is often a desire for attention and validation in light of problems at home, mental health issues, or a history of abuse” (114). Even so, boyd reports that when investigating ostensibly consensual but illegal sexual relationships, “most of the teens I interviewed met their older boyfriends or girlfriends through friends, family, religious activities, or in other face-to-face encounters” (117). The problem is real and needs attention, but is not aided by media distortions that reinforce the stranger danger account of online or other public interactions.

Although debunking overblown fears based on sensational media accounts is clearly one of boyd’s goals, it is one aspect of a nuanced argument about the changing social landscapes and relationships between American teens and adults. After speaking in 2006 to a teen hiding his MySpace affiliation from his concerned mother, boyd writes, “Aaron spoke of protecting his mom just as she had told me about her desire to protect him. He wanted to save his mother from fretting about him. This dynamic—children worrying about mothers and mothers worrying about children—was something I saw often” (101). Instead of suffocating “helicopter parents” being the villains of the chapter, the attempt to regulate teens’ network access is depicted as an overall (and age-old) problem of communication. Adults, having forgotten the social values they prioritized as teens, lack the perspective necessary to understand teens’ desire for access to public spaces; teens, lacking the perspective of a world in which networked technologies did not exist, have no point of reference for communicating why their need for public access must take the form of these particular technologies.

Still, adults’ aversion to the technologies seems for boyd more an extension of general panic over teens than a specific form of ludditism. “Protecting children from public places—and protecting society from teenagers roaming the streets—has become a cultural imperative,” she contends, and “As always happens whenever adults obsess over child safety, restrictions emerge and fearful rhetoric abounds” (103). Boyd thus situates limitations on teens’ network access—whether these limitations originate within the family or from the government—in a larger context of gated communities in which teens often live miles from their nearest friends, curfews, anti-loitering laws, and the stigmatization of shopping malls and public parks as appropriate public teen meeting places. In short, the latest restrictions are attempts to keep teens from being both victims and victimizers by keeping them safely tucked away indoors.

Although boyd claims that these restrictions do not have their intended effects on crime and delinquency, they do have pernicious side effects. She argues that “Parents and society as a whole often use fear to keep youth from engaging in practices that adults see as dangerous. This can backfire, undermining trust and resulting in lost opportunities” (125). From the Reagan-era anti-drug campaigns to popular misrepresentation of the dangers of social media, attempts to protect through misinformation can become case studies in unintended consequences, encouraging teens who become wise to the deceit to experiment recklessly in taboo behaviors. Boyd concludes that “When adults jump to fear and isolationism as their solution to managing risk, they often undermine their credibility and erode teens’ trust in the information that adults offer” (126).

Boyd’s methodological approach throughout the chapter—mixing journalism and anthropology to discover public attitudes, and then clarifying and contrasting these qualitative data with quantitative research from the social sciences—brings an edifying mix of bird’s eye and worm’s eye perspective to the problem of teens, sex, predation, and online communities. I think that she is right to cast the problem in the greater context of two great, intertwined adult fears in the United States: emergent technologies and teen sexuality. The great irony that she uncovers is that adults who know very little of the social media that they seek to regulate—or at least regulate teens’ access to—seem to believe that they are well-apprised of the dangers of these same media. And in this they are often badly mistaken. Thus, the chapter offers a much-needed resource for those seeking a more balanced and accurate understanding of the phenomenon of online sexual solicitation, written in a style accessible to virtually anyone interested. I think that boyd is mainly right in two predictions: first, the specific technologies in the book (some of which, like MySpace, have already aged poorly) will likely be obsolete by the time that the book reaches much of its intended audience; second, it won’t matter. The underlying picture of privacy and technology that boyd sketches is an issue that must be dealt with in the long term.

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