In my last but one blog I discussed some research published by Pew. It showed that a surprisingly high proportion of internet users in the USA thought the internet had been a bad thing for society as a whole. Pew didn’t say why people thought this but I am pretty sure one of the factors was the way cyberspace has repeatedly been associated with or linked to alleged or apparent increases in sexual crimes against children.
But has there in fact been such an increase and, if there has, can any of it be attributed to the emergence of the internet as a mass consumer product?
Enter the Prof
The doyen of research in the field of online sex offending against children, Professor David Finklehor of the University of New Hampshire, discussed the issue in a paper he published in 2011 entitled
Finklehor looks at whether or to what extent the existence of the internet can be said to have made things worse for kids in the sense that it is exposing them to a higher incidence of sex crimes. This is what he says (pp 5, 6).
…..the concern has been that the Internet was making children more vulnerable to sexual victimization. But sex crimes overall and against children in particular have dropped dramatically in the US…..According to FBI data, forcible rape is down 33% from 1992 to 2009 (about half of forcible rape reports involve juveniles). The child welfare data show sexual abuse of children down 61% from 1992 2009. Those statistics reflect reported cases, but self-report data from the National Crime Victimization Survey and other sources also show big declines in sex offenses against juveniles. So both sex crimes reported to police and child welfare authorities and sex crimes self-reported by victims in various victim surveys are down.
In a similar vein Finklehor also refers to several other aspects of youth health and welfare where, again, the macro trends all appear to be positive in recent years, years that coincide with the growth of the internet.
Does this mean we can say the internet deserves any (or all) credit for the apparent fall not only in recorded incidents of sexual crimes involving children but also in terms of the wider improvements in their health and welfare? No. Moreover, at least in respect of sexual crimes involving children, it is entirely possible there may not have been a fall. Indeed there could have been an increase.
On page 8 of his report Finklehor says
To be clear, none of (the) indicators can individually or collectively dispute the idea that the Internet could have been amplifying deviance and increasing risk. They do NOT provide a rigorous test of the hypothesis about risk amplification. The increased risks from the Internet may still be new enough that they have not started to influence these macro trends or influence them very much. These venerable social problem indicators may also not be good at picking up the specific Internet component of the danger. So for example the sex crime measures may assess violent sex crime but not statutory sex crime, which could be what the Internet is fostering.
Finklehor goes on to say he is sceptical about the latter proposition but acknowledges its existence as potentially valid. He might also have added that the trends he refers to tell us nothing about what might have been happening with or within particular sub groups of children and young people. Macro trends can mask perhaps important shifts at micro level. These will only become apparent if we have better and more granular data.
In summing up (page 23) Finklehor says the following
There may be people who conclude from this essay that all the talk about Internet danger is an exaggeration. But this is also wrong. There are dangers on the Internet. We need to understand them, prevent them and eliminate them. We need active police presence online, hotlines, prevention programs, and pressure on ISPs and social networking sites to minimize risks. We only need to know that there are dangers in order to warrant this. We do not have to argue that the Internet is especially dangerous, any more than we have to argue that our local town is especially dangerous in order to justify law enforcement and crime prevention activities there. We justify airline security not because flying is particularly dangerous, it is not, but because there are some dangers. Even in a comparatively safe city or environment, there are crime and social problems there that warrant serious attention. We are comfortable with this kind of logic elsewhere, we should be comfortable about it in regard to the Internet neighborhood as well.
I could not have put it better myself. But I’ll try. Knowing whether there has been an absolute or relative decline or increase in the volumes of sexual offending against children, or whether this or that proportion of sexual offending is taking place online or offline, is interesting and may also be valuable in helping to form priorities for action, but it is not necessarily the most important thing to know. There shouldn’t be any offending at all and for as long as there is everybody has a duty to mitigate it wherever it is happening.
Data from one country but…..
To make an obvious point, Finklehor is only looking at US data, but this raises the possibility, some might say probability, that the position is similar in other developed nations. However, as the internet begins its march into countries or territories in parts of the world where there is limited availability of social and educational resources, insufficient machinery within the law enforcement community for dealing with online crime, low levels of awareness of the new technologies among parents and teachers, and perhaps high levels of poverty, the hypothesis sketched out for the USA is likely to be of little relevance.
Law enforcement see things differently
It should be noted police all over the world strongly dispute the point Finklehor is so careful not to make but which others wrongly attribute to him.
If Finklehor is saying the jury is still out, by contrast the police have most definitely brought in a verdict at least for that larger portion of the planet which is not the USA.
The police say they are being deluged by entirely unprecedented numbers of cases of online sexual offences involving children. Their evidence is normally not published but the message is consistent from police forces across the world. A lot of it turns on the growth in the number of child abuse images being reported to them, videos and stills.
So how might we explain this?
As Finklehor acknowledges, the downward trends he was commenting on, derived from the “venerable” indicators, may not be connecting with those currents that are now producing the growing number of reports the cops are speaking about.
As a result of being groomed or coerced, if a child knowingly created or appeared in an image or video of themselves engaged in a sexual act, would they be more or less likely to disclose this as a form of sex abuse than would have been the case in earlier times when the abuse might have been more direct or hands on without any image or video being created, much less one that went out on to the internet? It could well be they wouldn’t. That would explain more images ending up with law enforcement but a steady or falling level of reports of abuse showing up in the venerable indicators.
Otherwise we are being asked to believe that more people are looking at and collecting images than ever before, more are in circulation, but this does not necessarily betoken a rise in actual cases of sexual abuse. I guess that’s possible but it seems unlikely.
Could it be the police are finally getting a truer perspective on sex offending against children, an insight into levels which previously had been hidden or didn’t surface to the fullest extent they could, for example because they were subsumed within other types of offending and law enforcement did not manage to obtain or record full disclosure? Previous levels of disclosure were therefore always understating the real levels of abuse and the internet is only now exposing that.
If we look at what happened in the UK in the aftermath of the Jimmy Saville case there was a huge increase (77%) in persons stepping forward with previously unreported cases of sexual abuse, mostly dating from long ago when they were children. Maybe that latency has been around for years. Link that to the comparatively low rate of convictions for sexual crimes and it is not hard to imagine that venerable may also be inadequate.
An intriguing suggestion was put to me by a colleague. She pointed out that the peaks of sexual offending were during adolescence and middle age and we do not know how long the pathway to contact offending might be. As the internet has just celebrated its 25th birthday we might be moving towards a new high point that has been gathering momentum over recent years. Furthermore with the continued growth of the internet in other parts of the world a new and higher plateau of offending may still be ahead of us. The police are simply seeing it ahead of the social scientists.
The fourth possible explanation is much simpler: cops have little to gain from minimizing the scale of the problem. On the contrary some say they are likely to exaggerate it either to excuse poor performance or as part of a (never ending) claim for more resources.
I very much doubt this is in any way a significant part of the answer. Every police force I know in every part of the globe is saying more or less exactly the same thing. I just do not believe they would be motivated or able to concoct and sustain a conspiracy on the requisite scale.
Whatever the explanation the uncertainty about what is happening to kids in relation to online sex crimes feeds into an on-going debate that is entirely false and unhelpful.
On the one hand there are those who argue everything’s cool, the kids are alright and anyone who tries to suggest otherwise is scaremongering or getting things out of proportion usually because they are trying to raise money for their own research or organization. Against that there are those who argue the internet is a terrible place, a constant threat to children and young people if not civilization as we know it and anyone who argues to the contrary is an apologist for Silicon Valley, usually because they are trying to raise money for their own research or organization. Or something like that.
A wide range of patterns of behaviour are changing in many different ways because of the fantastic possibilities the internet is opening up. It seems quite likely that we might need to develop new or different tools to ensure our understanding of what is going on is sound. Venerable may need to move over to make way for contemporary.
Of course we all want to stay positive and upbeat about the internet. Its achievements and benefits are staggering. But just as we should not assume everything new is good and inevitable equally everything old is not necessarily bad and doomed. Once more, research will illuminate the path. Yet more work for scholars!!
I get just as tired of listening to those who want to close down the internet as the only way of keeping kids safe as I do listening to Panglossian excesses about its limitless and unquestioned virtues.