Thursday, June 29, 2006

 

Teens Online Are ‘Very Vulnerable’ To Sexual Abuse, Committee Told

Detective: ‘Parents are scared to death out there’

WASHINGTON – Uninformed parents, cocky teenagers and tech-savvy predators make child pornography and exploitation possible on the Internet, a Connecticut police officer told Congress Wednesday.

“I have seen technology change in a direction that both benefits and assists online predators in carrying out their criminal activity,” Detective Frank Dannahey warned in a hearing of House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “With the majority of America’s teens online, the pool of potential online victims is vast.”

After seven Middletown, Conn., girls aged 12 to 16 were sexually assaulted in February by older men they met on Myspace.com, Dannahey posed online as a 19-year-old boy and in just two weeks gleaned personal information about more than 100 Myspace.com “friends.”

“It became immediately obvious that personal information was readily available and easily volunteered,” he said. “I was able to find out information such as where a teen lived, worked, their full name and date of birth, where they went to school, as well as home and cellular phone numbers.

“It was not uncommon to see photos of teens involved in underage drinking, drug use and risky behavior,” he added. “I found that teens are very trusting of people they meet online and are very willing to share their personal thoughts and information with virtual strangers. … Teens are very vulnerable online.”

Dannahey cited two major factors making the Internet so dangerous to children. The first was a lack of knowledge among parents about new technology. “The teen’s parents were totally unaware of what their teens were doing online,” he said, suggesting parents have their children walk them through what they do on the Internet. “Parents are scared to death out there, especially the ones that aren’t that Internet-savvy.”

Another problem is a naiveté among teens that they won’t fall victim to predators, even as their peers do.

“Why is there just no awareness of the danger?” asked U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

“They definitely have that ‘not-me’ feeling,” Dannahey observed. He said it was the same reaction teens have to the loss of a peer in a drunk-driving crash -- the parties stop and awareness is heightened, but after a few months old habits return. “They would acknowledge that ‘bad things happen,’ but they also say that ‘bad things don’t happen to me.’”

“I can’t imagine any parent out in the audience who would just give your 16-year-old a set of car keys and say, ‘Go for it,’” he said. “There’s a lot of preparation for that and this has to be under the same terms.”

Dannahey said education programs and public service announcements are the best way to combat online child predators. He suggested parents ban Webcams altogether and also expressed concern about Web-enabled cellular phones capable of recording pictures and videos.

“There have been some horrific cases where teens are generating their own pornography,” he said, noting that such images are treated like gold among predators.

Also testifying were representatives of social networking sites Facebook.com, Xanga.com and the popular Myspace.com – which attracts 250,000 new users every day and currently has 85 million registered users, more than 20 percent of whom are under 18. Lawmakers commended their recent efforts to thwart online child predators, but suggested that far more must be done, such as improved age-verification methods.

“We have all read the chilling news stories about a young teen meeting someone on one of these social networking sites and then being sexually molested or exploited in some way by one of these predators,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the subcommittee. “There has got to be a better answer to stopping this scenario than – don’t let your children use the Internet. I want to find that solution.”

“When our staffs were given a tour of the FBI’s ‘Innocent Images’ control center for Internet child abuse crimes, an agent went online posing as a 13-year-old girl that liked soccer,” said U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the subcommittee’s ranking member. “No other information was provided. This fictitious 13-year-old drew six responses from men seeking inappropriate conversation within the 15 minutes that the staff observed the exercise.

“Every day we wait for companies to change, millions of children are left vulnerable,” Stupak added. “Our patience is wearing thin. If we do not start seeing real change with real results, Congress will need to act swiftly to address this issue.”

Social networking sites are committed to helping law enforcement, executives testified, but are struggling to adopt effective age-verification software or practices. Each company had different data retention policies and expressed a willingness to hold information for longer if warranted. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., suggested the Web sites cross-reference users with sex-offender registries to identify child predators.

The Federal Trade Commission revealed that they were currently investigating social networking sites to determine whether they are in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which restricts the collection, use or disclosure of personally-identifiable information about children under 13 on the Internet.

Full committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, reiterated his intent to pursue comprehensive anti-child pornography legislation.
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