Interview: David Finkelhor, Crimes Against Children Research Center

LARRY MAGID’S INTERVIEW WITH DAVID FINKELHOR

It’s not primarily having a social networking profile or giving out personal information that puts kids at risk What puts kids at risk are things like having a lot of conflict with your parents, being depressed and socially isolated, being hyper, communicating with a lot of people online who you don’t know, being willing to talk about sex online with people that you don’t know.” – David Finkelhor

In the suicide case of 13-year-old Megan Meier, a 49-year-old mother, Lori Drew, allegedly posed as a teen-age boy to gain the affections of young Megan under false pretenses. After a flirtatious online relationship, this fictitious young man “broke up” with Megan and Megan hanged herself about an hour later. To many, this is a case of cyberbullying, though not a very typical one for several reasons discussed here. David Finkelhor is Director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center and one of the world’s leading scholars when it comes to the victimization of children both on and off the Internet. In an interview with Dr. Finkelhor, I started by asking him to explain just how common or rare this type of situation happens to be.

FINKELHOR: Bullying happens an awful lot. As far as we know, it’s not typically adults who are bullying and harassing young people. It tends to be more often young-people-on-young-people, so this case was somewhat unusual in that sense. But the Internet does allow a lot of permutations that we might not have thought about in the area when children are more confined to their own kind of ghetto of childhood, so this is something that we might see more of.

MAGID: Moving away for a moment from the adult issue, how common is cyberbullying among children and teens and how much of an impact does it have on them?

FINKELHOR: We’re really getting our legs on this topic in trying to understand more about it. Bullying in general takes a terrific toll on children. In fact, when we talk with young people in an interview, this is one of the perils that they are most concerned about, and certainly many studies have shown it to have serious psychological impact. Our studies of harassment online suggested that it can have an impact on kids as well. But how serious it has to be and how long it has to go on before it really begins to kind of be corrosive, I don’t think we know all of that yet.

MAGID: What’s the difference between and schoolyard bullying and cyberbullying?

FINKELHOR: A lot of comparisons have been made, but I think we are still learning more about this. People like to emphasize the degree to which bullying can be anonymous online and the degree to which it could be amplified by being disseminated to large numbers of people. And [these factors] certainly increase the seriousness. But on the other hand, the physical intimidation dimensions aren’t quite as great as in face-to-face bullying. And we don’t know if there might in fact be some substitution of online bullying for old fashioned face-to-face bullying which means that it is somewhat less scary in some of its dimensions.

MAGID: I believe it was you, who reported that roughly 32-33% of youths have received some type of online harassment. Is that the case?

FINKELHOR: Right. That’s what our survey shows, but there’s been some use of the term “bullying” applied to that, and that’s probably not correct because the bullying authorities like to restrict that term to harassment and threats that occur over a continued period of time and that involve an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim. And most of these online harassment situations don’t involve those two elements.

Predator Risk is not what a lot of people think

MAGID: This [Meier case] isn’t what you would typically call a predator case – although it is a case where an adult is posing as a child, but in this case not for sexual purposes but to otherwise harass. But let’s talk for a minute about predators. Because, if you look at some of the media reports, it seems almost as if there’s a predator behind every keyboard. How prominent is it?

FINKELHOR: “Predator” is not a word that I like to use a whole lot myself. “Offenders,” “perpetrators,” “abusers,” I think, work a lot better. There’s an image that developed in the media and to some extent in the educational programs that there are these Internet predators who trail all over the Internet looking for innocent young children who inadvertently log their personal information into a service online and then, using that information, they stalk these kids; they pretend to be other kids and lure them to meetings where they abduct them, rape or murder them. That’s not really, I think, a good description of the majority of the sex offenses that we see adults committing against children online. They primarily involve adults who are offending against teenagers. We see very few cases of young children, so primarily it’s 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds. There was a perception that people tend to think these adults usually are hiding the fact that they’re adults and eventually the kids come to see that they have a sexual interest in them as well, even if they don’t make that clear at the very beginning but certainly do when a meeting occurs.

MAGID: You’re saying that kids usually aren’t surprised. If they do actually wind up with a face-to-face meeting they’re not terribly surprised once they get there.

FINKELHOR: The kids typically go to these meetings and know that this is an encounter with somebody whom they’re romantically interested in or whom they are looking for an adventure with and where sex is on the agenda. These much more fit the stereotype of what you might call statutory sex crimes than either child molestation or forcible rape.

MAGID: In 2000 you did a study that reported that 1 in 5 youths had received an unwanted sexual solicitation and when you repeated that in 2005 it went down to 1 in 7, which is good. But I’ve read some reports in the media and from politicians that have used the word predator, that is, 1 in 5 or 1 in 7 young people have been approached by an online predator. Could you put that into some perspective?

FINKELHOR: In that survey we did find that 1 out of 7 young people who use the Internet [received] an unwanted sexual solicitation or inquiry from someone online. But those aren’t all predators by any stretch of the imagination. I like to say it’s more like 1 in 25 kids who encounter what we call an aggressive solicitation, somebody who sent them a kind of sexual message and is trying to follow that up in some way by actually trying to meet them or arranging to contact them offline as well.

MAGID: Right. But some of those 1 in 7, some of them are either minors – about half, I think – and then some of them, as you said, are non-aggressive, that the kids just deal with in some way?

FINKELHOR: Yeah, you can imagine, given the anonymity of the Internet, there are a lot of people who are just being fresh, I think. They’re asking kids, what’s your bra size? Or they’re making some rude sexual comment to them, it’s not necessarily a prelude to an attempt to meet them or sexually seduce them even.

MAGID: And then finally when you talk about the 1 in 25, and when you look at other data about “at risk kids,” it appears and again this is from looking at much of your research, that there is a pattern of risk and there are certain activities that kids engage in that tends to increase the risk. It’s more or less sociological or psychological conditions under which kids find themselves. And I am wondering whether we can begin to get a better understanding or have a better understanding as to who is at risk and what can be done for this particular population?

What puts kids at risk

FINKELHOR: That’s a good question. It’s not primarily having a social networking profile or giving out personal information that puts kids at risk. What puts kids at risk are things like having a lot of conflict with your parents, being depressed and socially isolated, being hyper, communicating with a lot of people online who you don’t know, being willing to talk about sex online with people that you don’t know. I think also, for example, having sexual orientation questions probably puts kids at risk

MAGID: Being in doubt about your sexual orientation?

FINKELHOR: Yeah, cause kids are online kind of looking for help on that and that makes them vulnerable. These are kids who have encountered trouble and are having difficulties in various places in their lives, probably because they don’t have good relationships, or they are in conflict, don’t have people to confide in. They’re out there and more vulnerable to these sexual exploitations.

MAGID: This doesn’t sound like a new story. This sounds like something that people have been talking about for decades in terms of kids at risk. Is there anything special about today’s high-risk kids versus the ones who were around 20, 30, 40 years ago?

FINKELHOR: That’s a good question. They certainly have many of the characteristics of kids that we’ve always regarded as being high risk. Although because the Internet maybe has not penetrated to some of the lower socio-economic strata yet these kids just may be kind of better off than the troubled kids that a lot of our social programs have been oriented towards in the past.

MAGID: And that brings up the final question, which is social problems. What can be done? I mean, do we need to educate the entire population or do we really have a sub-section of the population that needs some kind of special service in terms of online-safety education?

FINKELHOR: I think we need to do both. Both what you’d call primary and secondary prevention. I think that there are good Internet citizenship and safety skills that probably everybody should have. But we need a second tier of prevention programs that really are targeted to kids that might be at high risk or might be thinking about doing more edgy, dangerous kinds of things. They might be having some kinds of problems, and helping them to see what some of the consequences might be [would be helpful]. As for that group in particular, I think we need to say talking to their parents about how to better control and supervise them may not really work. These are kids who frequently are not amenable to parental control or maybe don’t have a very good relation with their parents. So we need to find ways, I think, to reach them more directly.

MAGID: David Finkelhor, the Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, thank you very much.

FINKELHOR: Thank you. That was a good conversation.

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