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Age & Parental Verification: How Not to Keep Kids Safe on the Internet

I’m heading back
down to North Carolina tomorrow to testify against a bill pending in the state
legislature that would require anyone under 18 to have a parent’s permission to
join a social networking site such as MySpace.

At first glance,
that might seem like a sensible idea. But, as I keep pointing out to anyone who
will listen, it just won’t work.  How can
a website be sure that someone signing up is really over 18?  How can a website be sure that a person giving
parental consent is really a parent? Experience and common sense suggest that
education and prevention are a far better approach to Internet safety.

Indeed, a study published earlier this year in
the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine
suggests that a lot of the advice we have been giving young
people about Internet safety may be off the mark anyway. The researchers found
no evidence that sharing personal information online increases the chances of
online victimization, like unwanted sexual solicitation and harassment.
Victimization is more likely to result from other online behavior, like talking
about sex with people met online and intentionally embarrassing someone else on
the Internet.


These findings are in
line with earlier research by the University of New Hampshire that examined
2,500 cases where juveniles were victims of sex crimes committed by people they
met on the Internet. The study found that these children, almost all teenagers,
were not victims of strangers who had lured them into situations where they
could be abducted or assaulted. In fact, just the opposite was the case. The
adult offenders usually didn’t try to deceive their victims about their age or
their interest in sexual relationships. Only five percent lied about their age
in order to pose as a minor.


Age verification and
parental consent may be politically popular, but they would only give parents
concerned about online safety a dangerously false sense of security. Rather than
trying to impose unworkable age verification and parental consent requirements
on social networking sites, we should authorize more money for equipment and
training to support specialized investigations and prosecution of actual online
crime. We should also enact tougher penalties for online sexual predators? Finally, let’s pay
attention to the growing body of
research and spend more on programs to teach kids how to use the Internet safely
and responsibly?