Earlier this month, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl.com released a survey showing that two in five teens has sent sexually suggestive messages online. One in five has electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves. And more than a third of teens in the survey say that those pictures tend to be shared beyond the intended recipient.
Teen exploitation online has long been a hot-button topic for tech-focused politics. Last year, popular teen social networks like MySpace and Facebook were the targets of investigations by several state attorneys generals seeking to purge sexual predators from the sites. MySpace responded by deleting the accounts of 29,000 users whose personal details match them with records of sex offenders, and Facebook is still undergoing a two-year investigation that will track incidents of pornography and sexual advances on the site.
But Larry Magid, a board member of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the founder of Safekids.com and Connectsafely.org, argues that the focus on sexual predators on social networking sites is largely political grandstanding. Much less sensational, and far more common, he contends, are cases where kids simply post too much sensitive or compromising information about themselves online, leading to incidents of cyberbullying and embarrassment.
Social networking sites make an easy scapegoat, he says. But even e-mail can be a source of trouble if kids aren't careful. "Say a girl sends her boyfriend compromising photos. Two weeks later, he's no longer her boyfriend, and two weeks after that, he's angry at her and posts the photo online," Magid says. "That's not physically harmful, but it can be psychologically devastating to a young girl.
The answer, then, isn't to engage in witch hunts on MySpace and Facebook, says Magid, but to better educate kids about online privacy. On that front, says Adam Thierer of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, parents and schools aren't keeping up with the pace of technological culture. "We're doing a horrendous job in this country of educating our kid about how to behave online," he argues. "We give them so many messages about drinking, sex, even fatty foods. But when it comes to online safety, we throw them into the deep end of the pool."
Of course, the threat of sexual predators is real enough. Last year, 19-year-old Alicia Kozakiewicz testified to Congress' judiciary committee about her experience as a victim of kidnapping and sexual abuse after being deceived online. Six years earlier, she had arranged a meeting with a friend she'd met online, who described "herself" as a 12-year-old redhead. Instead, she found Scott Tyree, a middle-aged man who kidnapped her, imprisoned her and abused her physically and sexually for days before she was rescued by FBI agents.
"I discovered that the boogeyman is real, and that he lives on the Web," she told Congress at a judiciary committee hearing called to consider toughening online sexual predator laws.
But as nightmarish as Kozakiewicz story may be, it would be a mistake to focus only on these rare tragedies, says Magid. "I'm definitely not saying this didn't happen, and that it's not tragic. But we shouldn't take this case and make this seem like a common occurrence," Magid says. "This kind of thing is probably as rare as being molested by a member of Congress."
Instead of living in fear of Internet boogeymen, Magid and Thierer offer a few simple tips for filling the education gap surrounding online privacy. Most importantly, they say, talk to your kids about what should and shouldn't be publicly posted on the Internet. Be sure they understand that personal details like addresses and phone numbers, as well as private photos, should stay offline.
Also, consider placing any computers in the house in a "public" place, like the family room or living room, rather than a child's bedroom. This tactic doesn't just let parents keep Web browsing safe and open, it also helps parents limit the time kids spend online and encourages offline activities like sports or socializing.
One tool Magid advises parents to use with caution, however, is Web filtering software like Net Nanny or Cybersitter, which block objectionable content online. For teens, he says, such software inspires resentment and only leads to kids looking for other sources of Internet access, like a friend's computer. As cellphones become smarter, they may also offer kids a surreptitious avenue to the Web.
For younger kids, an easier way to keep Web surfing safe may be an emerging group of social networking sites aimed at preteens. Disney's (nyse: DIS - news - people )Club Penguin is a social network and virtual world for kids ages 6 to 14. On settings aimed at its youngest demographic, the game only allows players to communicate using pre-set phrases, making obscenities or other inappropriate content impossible. Even on its settings for older users, the site employs teams of moderators to identify and ban any user spouting less-than-innocent language.
Another site that mimics MySpace for young teens and 'tweens is Imbee.com. Imbee's late creator, Jeanette Symons, who passed away in February, told Forbes.com last year that the site is designed to bring real-world friendships onto the Web, not vice versa. Only a child's direct friends can view his or her profile, and parents are alerted whenever a new friend is added.
"Younger kids are seeing what older kids are doing with MySpace and Facebook, and of course, they want to mimic it. The problem is that they don't have the concepts yet to be able to realistically protect themselves," she told Forbes.com. "Imbee gives them social networking without the risks."
Symons created the site about two years ago, after her 6-year-old daughter demanded she be allowed to join MySpace. Symons wisely refused that request, and instead built her own social network, hosted on a server in her closet. Soon, neighborhood kids had joined, and today, the site has more than 50,000 registered accounts.
Echoing Larry Magid, Symons believed that the rare threat of sexual predators had, in some ways, obscured the more common problem of kids' indiscreetly publishing personal information on the Web.
"I don't realistically think that predators are much worse online than they are in real life," Symons says. "The thing I worry about is that whatever kids publish today can stick with them for the rest of their lives. Once you publish on the Internet, it's there for all to see."