“One in Five” Really?

Data driven decision making is a buzz word in education of late. My crap detector goes into high alert when this discussion roles around, since data in this case usually means test scores and tests usually means low level, knowledge based memorization. Without this discussion, it's too easy to move to solutions that potentially address something that in the end, real educators care about… improving test scores. 

Data can be extremely useful and yet our obsession with it is leading to some really weird and potentially damaging decisions in all areas of life.

Parents are just bad at risk assessment,” said Christie Barnes, a mother of four and the author of “The Paranoid Parents Guide.” “We are constantly overestimating rare dangers while underestimating common ones.” Nytimes.com

The one that continues to haunt me is the very scary Internet predator. I've written about it often enough but what I want to address here is the way in which data has be used carelessly and unethically to promote fear and sell products.

“One in five children is now approached by online predators." This statistic has been quoted numerous times by media and other agencies to paint a very inaccurate picture of life online. From the Skeptical Inquirer

This alarming statistic is commonly cited in news stories about prevalence of Internet predators, but the factoid is simply wrong. The “one in five statistic” can be traced back to a 2001 Department of Justice study issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“The Youth Internet Safety Survey”) that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences. Anyone bothering to actually read the report will find a very different picture. Among the study’s conclusions: “Almost one in five (19 percent) . . . received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year.” (A “sexual solicitation” is defined as a “request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult.” Using this definition, one teen asking another teen if her or she is a virgin—or got lucky with a recent date—could be considered “sexual solicitation.”) Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the “sexual solicitations” came not from “predators” or adults but from other teens—in many cases the equivalent of teen flirting. When the study examined the type of Internet “solicitation” parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from “one in five” to just 3 percent.

So that figure gets blatantly tossed around and pretty soon it becomes part of the culture. The "one in five" stat is used more than you can imagine. Using volatile terms like "sexual solicitation" and then jumping to "predator" is a sneaky and unethical. It reminds me of lawyers who might use a phrase or question that is inadmissible but once it's out there, it's in the mind of the jurors. I've been noticing some questioning of that belief but it doesn't help when governments back organizations who perpetuate a myth. While preparing for a recent symposium on digital citizenship I came across this site sponsored by the government of Canada and several high profile communication companies. They've nicely packaged this for teachers and while there likely is some decent content on there I get more than a little irritated when I see this about the risks of social networking:

Sexual offenders target social networking sites where kids are encouraged to create online diaries and connect with new people.

Really? (doing my best Seth Meyers imitation) What happens when a well meaning teacher or parent looks for help and curriculum to help students in their digital endeavours? They quickly develop paranoia and fear in themselves and potentially their students and children. 

I'm not nearly as diligent about research and data mining as I could be, but it's obvious that we continue to need filters and the ability and desire to ask the right questions to undercover the truth. Even when we do this, there will still be debate and interpretation of that data but in this case, there's not much to debate. Believing that online interactions put you in danger of sexual offenders is shameful abuse of data. We need to stop relying on others to interpret data and respond and eliminate unfounded fears that many are using to suppress learning.

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  • Thanks for addressing these issues, Dean. Jennifer Cunningham wrote a similar post here: http://www.julieacunningham.com/?p=129. I detest scare tactics used by people who are ignorant and simply want to spread fear.

    I have spoken with my principal this year, and we are going to start a series of workshops to help inform parents about the myths of online predators as well as how to help their kids use web tools appropriately. With your blog post and Jennifer’s, they’ll have some interesting reading to get them started. Thanks.

    • Thanks Michelle,

      I did read Julie’s post and nearly linked to it in this post. I guess we still have to continue to debunk the myth and illusion that is so prevalent.

  • It is bad enough that parents hear these statistics and get scared, but it is much worse when it is administrators in a school district. How many of us have to suffer with blocked sites simply because the administrators are uneducated and unwilling to be educated about internet safety?

  • @Michelle Baldwin

    Well I think part of the problem is that parents aren’t as technologically advanced so they end up think the internet is a lot scarier than it actually is.