How We Were Fooled Into Thinking That Sexual Predators Lurk Everywhere

Creating a moral panic about social media didn’t protect teens—it left them vulnerable

Mar 13, 2014 · 38 min read

This article is taken from It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, written by danah boyd, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, and published by Yale University Press.

Fred and Aaron, white fifteen-year-old friends living in suburban Texas, are avid gamers. When we first met in 2007, their mothers were present. I asked about their participation on social network sites, and they explained that they didn’t use those sites but loved sites like Runescape, a fantasy game with customizable avatars. Their mothers nodded, acknowledging their familiarity with Runescape before interrupting their children’s narrative to express how unsafe social network sites were. Something about Fred and Aaron’s gritted nod in response left me wondering how these teens really felt about MySpace and Facebook—sites that were all the rage with their peer group at the time. Later, almost immediately after I sat with the boys alone to talk with them in-depth, they offered a different story.

Aaron explained that he was active on MySpace but that his mother didn’t know. Since many of his friends were using Facebook, he would have liked to create an account there, too, but his mother had an account on Facebook for work and he feared she would accidentally stumble onto his profile. Out of deference to his mother, Fred had yet to create an account on either site, but he was struggling to decide whether to keep abiding by his mother’s restrictions going forward. Fred told me that his parents forbade him from Facebook and MySpace after seeing “all the stuff on the news.” He said that his parents were afraid that “if I get on it, I’ll be assaulted.” Aaron chimed in to sarcastically remark, “He’ll meet in real life with a lonely forty-year-old man.” They both laughed at this idea.

Neither Fred nor Aaron believed that joining MySpace would make them vulnerable to sexual predators, but they were still concerned about upsetting their mothers. Both felt that their mothers’ fears were ill founded, but they also acknowledged that this fear was coming from a genuine place of concern. Although their demeanor was lighthearted, their discussion of their mothers’ fears was solemn: they worried that their mothers worried.

Although Aaron had violated his mother’s restriction by joining MySpace, he was conscientious about his profile there. His profile was private and filled with fake information and a non-identifiable photo, in part to minimize his mother’s concerns if she were to find out about the account and in part to minimize the likelihood of her finding out at all. In explaining his actions, Aaron spoke of protecting his mom just as she had told me about her desire to protect him. He wanted to save his mother from fretting about him. This dynamic—children worrying about mothers and mothers worrying about children—was something I saw often.

Like their parents, Aaron and Fred’s understanding of MySpace was shaped by the concern that unfolded over sexual predators in the mid-2000s. They understood where their mothers’ anxieties came from, even if they found the explanation illogical. Starting in 2005, news media across the United States began to suggest that MySpace was an unsafe place for youth, a place where sexual predators—understood to be older men with malicious intentions—sought out vulnerable children. Although this was not the first time that the issue of online sexual predators emerged in the media, previous discussions had taken place before the internet had become mainstream among teens and before social media had become a media phenomenon. Parents were warned to keep their kids away from MySpace completely, lest they become someone’s prey.

This message of danger was heard loud and clear. The teens I interviewed had all heard terrible stories of teenagers being harmed by older male sexual predators they met on MySpace. In particular, girls believed these stories and feared the possibility of being raped, stalked, kidnapped, or assaulted by strangers as a result of their participation online. Their fears were rooted not in personal experience but in media coverage magnified by parental concerns. Teens often referred to the Dateline NBC TV show To Catch a Predator as proof that evil men are lurking behind every keyboard, ready to pounce on them. From news stories to school assemblies, teens were surrounded by messages about the dangers of predation. Although some teens rejected such messages as unfounded, others internalized them. Yet all were aware of the issue and were grappling with their feelings regarding the risks of social media.

From the advent of social media, it has been impossible to talk about teens’ engagement without addressing the topic of online safety and sexual predators. More than any other issue presented in this book, the topic of online safety generally—and sexual predators specifically— has played a significant role in configuring teens’ relation to mediated communication, adults’ attitudes toward teens’ participation, and policy discussions about social media regulation. Online safety is also a particularly complicated issue, in part because a culture of fear is omnipresent in American society, and no parent wants to take risks when it comes to their children’s safety. Statistics showing the improbability of harm fail to reassure those who are concerned. Even when highly publicized stories turn out to be fabrications, parents still imagine that somewhere, somehow, their child might fall victim to a nightmarish fate. They are afraid because terrible things do happen to children. And although those violations most commonly take place in known environments—home, school, place of worship, and so on—the internet introduces an unknown space that is harder to comprehend. Nothing feeds fear more than uncertainty.

The Foundation of Our Fears

Since the mid-1990s, alongside utopian rhetoric about the opportunities that the internet would enable, journalists have written salacious stories reviling online communities as sinister worlds where naive teens fall prey to assorted malevolent forces. Some adults have also vilified teens for using the internet to indulge their darkest and wildest impulses—notably, their sexual desires—typically below the radar of parental supervision. Those who portray the internet as a dangerous place for teenagers to inhabit seem to be motivated by several anxieties, but chief among them is a long-standing fear about teens’ access to public places.

Examining attitudes toward public spaces in the 1980s, geographer Gill Valentine documents how parental concerns about childhood safety—often discussed through the lens of “stranger danger”—have resulted in children being restricted from public spaces. Public parks and malls were at the center of parental anxieties because they were seen as sites where teens could encounter harmful strangers. Not all of the focus was on dangerous older men; the visible presence of youth gangs was also a concern for many parents. Although unease about delinquents date back decades, 1980s and 1990s parents were especially fearful that manipulative peers would conscript vulnerable youth into gangs.

Beyond broader concerns about childhood safety, fears about sex and sexuality have consistently dominated public debate, with topics like pornography, teenage pregnancy, and sexual predation regularly provoking public angst. Parks and other public spaces are consistently demonized as spaces where unseemly sexual conduct takes place after dark. News media magnifies fears about pedophiles and child rapists. Protecting children from public places—and protecting society from teenagers roaming the streets—has become a cultural imperative. As always happens whenever adults obsess over child safety, restrictions emerge and fearful rhetoric abounds.

As moral panics about child safety take hold, politicians feel that they should take action—or at least capitalize on the appearance of doing so. They regularly campaign over safety issues and implement or expand laws targeted at curtailing the freedoms of minors. In the 1980s and 1990s, this included curfew laws, anti-loitering laws, and truancy laws. To expunge teens from public places, cities and towns limited where, when, and for how long teens could gather or hang out in public places. Many believed that curfew laws would combat crime; a 1997 survey of US mayors found that 88 percent believed that youth curfews reduced crime. It did not. As researchers began to examine the effects of these laws, they found that there was no correlation between curfews and youth crime. After analyzing the data, sociologist Michael Males concluded that authority figures use curfews more as a symbol of social control than an actual crime deterrent. In the late 1990s, when asked to justify teen curfew laws in light of data suggesting that they are ineffective, New Orleans mayor Marc Morial responded on the radio by saying, “It keeps teenagers off the streets. They need it, there’s too many teenagers hanging around the streets.” Despite no effect on reducing crime, cities continued to implement curfews, and aside from a few laws that have been declared unconstitutional, most laws restricting the mobility of minors remain in force.

The same fears that shaped children’s engagement with parks and other gathering places in the latter half of the twentieth century are now configuring networked publics created through social media. Adults worry that youth may be coerced into unseemly practices or connect with adults who will do them harm. For decades, adults have worked to limit teen access to and mobility within public spaces. Simultaneously, teens have worked to circumvent adult authority in order to have freedom and mobility. The internet limits adult control precisely because it makes it harder for parents to isolate youth from material that they deem unacceptable and from people whose values may differ from theirs or who are unfamiliar in other ways. Discomfort with teen sexuality further fuels this general anxiety about teens’ access to public spaces. American society despises any situation that requires addressing teen sexuality, let alone platforms that provide a conduit for teens to explore their desires. At a more acute level, fears are especially intense whenever the possibility arises that strangers might exploit teens sexually.

Excluding teens from public places may give parents or politicians a sense of control, but it systematically disenfranchises youth from public life. Though authorities may see scaring teens as a valiant effort to protect vulnerable youth from danger, this approach can have significant consequences. As Valentine argues, “By reproducing a misleading message about the geography of danger, stranger-danger educational campaigns contribute towards producing public space as ‘naturally’ or ‘normally’ an adult space where children are at risk from ‘deviant’ others.” As a result, adult society isolates teens, limiting their opportunities to learn how to engage productively with public life.

Each new cultural shift, media development, or emergent technology reinvigorates anxieties about youth safety. When fears escalate out of control, they produce what sociologist Stanley Cohen calls “moral panics” as adults worry about the moral degradation that will be brought on by the shifting social force. A moral panic takes hold when the public comes to believe that a cultural artifact, practice, or population threatens the social order. Moral panics that surround youth typically center on issues of sexuality, delinquency, and reduced competency. New genres of media—and the content that’s shared through them—often trigger such anxieties. Eighteenth-century society saw novels as addictive and therefore damaging to young women’s potential for finding a husband. Introduced in the 1930s, comic books were seen not only as serving no educational purpose but as encouraging young people to get absorbed in fantasy worlds and to commit acts of violence. In the mid-1950s Elvis Presley’s vulgar, gyrating hips prompted great concern that broadcasting him on TV would corrupt teens. These are but a few of the unsubstantiated moral panics surrounding youth’s engagement with earlier forms of popular media.

Unsurprisingly, as the internet started gaining traction among youth, the same fears and anxieties that surrounded other publics and media genres reemerged in relation to networked publics and social media. Girls’ online social practices, in particular, are often the target of tremendous anxiety. When MySpace launched and grew popular among teenagers—notably, teen girls—a widespread moral panic unfolded. Many of the teens I met referenced To Catch a Predator, which fueled the media frenzy. In this television series, which ran from 2004 to 2007, adults would impersonate young teenagers in online chatrooms in order to find men interested in talking with underage minors. After contact was initiated, the show’s team would lure the men into meeting the “teen” in person only to be confronted by the TV show’s host. The show was controversial, leading to significant legal and ethical questions as well as raising issues about the relevance of such stings on teen behavior.

As the media was amplifying public concern, Congress introduced the Deleting Online Predators Act to restrict minors from interacting with strangers online; this bill would have forbidden young people from participating in online comment threads or posting content to public forums on computers paid for by government money, including those at schools and in libraries. Even though the data suggested that dynamics surrounding sexual crimes against children did not remotely resemble what was depicted on To Catch a Predator, the US attorneys general began looking for technical interventions to stop the kinds of sexual predation depicted by the show. Legislators never pursued these flawed approaches, yet their mere proposals reveal how powerful cultural furors over youth safety can be.

Moral panics and the responses to them reconfigure the lives of youth in restrictive ways, more than any piece of legislation could possibly achieve. Legal scholar Larry Lessig argues that four forces regulate social systems: market, law, social norms, and technology or architecture. Fear is often used in service of these forces. Companies sell fear to entice parents to buy products that will help them protect their children. Policymakers respond to fear by regulating children’s access to public spaces, even when doing so accomplishes little. The media broadcasts fears, creating and reinforcing fearful social norms. And technologies are built to assuage or reproduce parents’ fears. Given the cultural work done in the name of fear, it’s astounding that young people have as much freedom as they do.

Moral panics surrounding youth tend to reveal teens’ conflicted position within American society. Authority figures simultaneously view teens as nuisances who must be managed and innocent children who must be protected. Teens are both public menaces and vulnerable targets. Society is afraid of them and for them. The tension between these two views shapes adults’ relationship with teens and our societal beliefs about what it is that teenagers do. This schism leads to power struggles between teens and adults and shapes teens’ activities and opportunities. Parental fear—and teens’ response to it—complicates the lives of teens as they’re coming of age.

Incorporating Fear into Everyday Life

On a gorgeous spring Saturday in 2007, I drove around a predominantly white upper-middle-class suburb in the middle of Texas trying to find where teenagers might hang out. It was a newly planned community and there were no public parks or other obvious gathering spots. The school’s parking lot was empty; no one gathered at the local church; a highway blocked any foot traffic to nearby shops. As I wove in and out of meticulously designed subdivisions, I started to wonder whether the town was deserted. There were plenty of cars in the driveways and many of the automatic sprinklers were busy watering the lawns, but there were very few people. After about a half an hour of driving and scouting, I had seen one father playing in a driveway with two small children and another man walking a dog. I made a mental note to ask the teens I was interviewing about when and where they gathered and met new people.

When I arrived at Sabrina’s house at the edge of a picture-perfect cul-de-sac in this idyllic community, I casually remarked how odd it was that no one was outside. She looked at me strangely and asked me where they would go. I knew that, at fourteen, she didn’t have a driver’s license, so I asked her if she ever biked around the neighborhood. She told me that doing so was futile because all her friends lived at least ten miles away. Because of how the community assigned students to schools, she said, she knew no one who lived in walking or biking distance. She had once walked home from school just to see if she could, but it had taken her over two hours so she didn’t try it again. She told me that there was a shopping mall in walking distance but that it required crossing a major road, which was scary.

This prompted a conversation about the dangers of walking around town; she told me that safety was a big topic in her house. I wanted to understand what this meant in her family, given that her parents were both active in the military. I had to imagine that in their various tours of duty, they had been exposed to far riskier environments than I could imagine this pristine suburb to be. What I learned was that their experiences at war did not make them feel any safer at home. When I asked about the source of her parents’ concern, Sabrina told me that they were news junkies and were afraid about what might happen to her based on the stories they’d heard on TV. Both Sabrina and her parents felt that it was better to be safe than sorry. From Sabrina’s perspective, staying inside was much safer than walking around outside, and therefore, there was no point in trying to go out.

As our conversation continued, it became clear that Sabrina believed that the internet posed even greater risks than her suburban neighborhood. While her online safety concerns were far greater than those of most of her peers, they played a significant role in shaping her mediated interactions. She liked to read messages in online communities, but she did not post messages or talk to anyone in online forums because “any person could be a forty-year-old man waiting to come and rape me or something. I’m really meticulous about that, because I’ve heard basically my whole life, don’t talk to people you don’t know online, ’cause they’ll come kill you.” Sabrina has never personally known any victims of such crimes, but she told me that she had seen episodes of Law and Order in which terrible things happened to people who talked to strangers online. For a long time, she was afraid to get on MySpace—the social network site popular with her friends at the time—because she thought stalkers might find her. Her friends convinced her to join by pointing out that she could protect herself through privacy settings. Still, she worried that someone might stalk her, so she was very reticent. “It’s still like a possibility,” she said, “because I mean anyone can just click on your profile and find out kind of what’s going on.” Sabrina feared that if she gave any indication of where she lived or where she went to school, some evil man might track her down and abduct her. As she explained her concerns, I could see genuine fear in her eyes.

Pervasive talk of “stranger danger” shaped Sabrina’s interactions with social media. Even though she was cautious and limited her online activities, she was terrified that something would go wrong. In telling me about all of the risks that she faced online, she cited stories she’d heard, referring to incidents that had received widespread news attention. Although many teens rolled their eyes when I raised the issue of online safety, these issues were very present and real for Sabrina.

While Sabrina was more reluctant to engage in social media than most teens that I interviewed, the fears she expressed reflect concerns shared by many adults. When my colleagues and I surveyed a national sample of parents, 93 percent of them were concerned that their child might meet a stranger online who would hurt them even though only one percent of them indicated that any of their children had ever met a stranger who had been hurtful. Surprisingly to us, parents were no more afraid for their daughters than their sons. Also in the survey, before there was any reference to specific online dangers, parents consistently reported “sexual predators,” “child molesters,” “pedophiles,” and “sex offenders” as their primary concern in an open-ended question about their biggest worries about their children’s online participation. For example, one parent explained, “My Biggest fear is that [my child] would become the ‘target’ of some online predator that intends to either: 1) lure my child away to meet them ALONE! Or 2) Convince my child to reveal personal information that could jeopardize his safety and that of my family while in our home.” Via survey and in person, I heard variations of this fear repeated by parent after parent throughout the country.

Although many teens think that parental fears are unwarranted, a sizable number—like Sabrina—share their parents’ anxiety about sexual predators and worry for their own safety and for the safety of their siblings. When I asked Sabrina how common she thought online sexual predators were, she referred to To Catch a Predator as evidence of their pervasiveness. Although she had never known anyone who had been a victim of an online stalker or rapist, she was determined to be vigilant, both for herself and for her peers.

Parental fear regarding sexual predators is understandable. No parent wants to imagine her or his child being harmed, and the potential cost of such a violation is unfathomable, regardless of how statistically improbable such an event might be. Combine this with the media’s magnification of the cultural mythos of the online sexual predator and it’s no wonder that countless parents become hyper-protective without considering the costs of their actions. But this distorted fear obscures the very real and costly risks that some youth do face. Untangling these issues requires stepping back and rethinking what we think we know regarding sexual predation.

The Online Sexual Predator Myth

Abduction, molestation, and rape reasonably top the charts of parental fears. From the Catholic Church predatory priest scandals to the 1993 Polly Klaas murder, society struggles to comprehend how adults can harm children. Each new horrific story raises the blood pressure of parents and motivates policymakers to try and enact new restrictions that might prevent future abuse. The approach that politicians take is rarely applied evenly. Although lawmakers are happy to propose interventions that limit youth’s rights to access online spaces, they have not proposed laws to outlaw children’s access to religious institutions, schools, or homes, even though these are statistically more common sites of victimization.

A central challenge in addressing the sexual victimization of children is that the public is not comfortable facing the harrowing reality that strangers are unlikely perpetrators. Most acts of sexual violence against children occur in their own homes by people that those children trust. Sexual predation did not begin with the internet, nor does it appear as though the internet has created a predatory epidemic.

Internet-initiated sexual assaults are rare. The overall number of sex crimes against minors has been steadily declining since 1992, which also suggests that the internet is not creating a new plague. At the same time, fear-based advertising campaigns continue to propagate the belief that the internet has introduced a new flood of predators into the living rooms of families across the United States.

Consider a widely distributed poster produced by the Ad Council that ran from 2004 to 2007, which reads, “To the list of places you might find sexual predators add this one.” These words appear above a grid of twelve images, eleven of which are public places like parks and streets; the twelfth, the image behind the words “this one,” is a child’s bedroom with a computer monitor. The message is clear: predators are lurking behind the computer and will enter your home through it. The television version of this campaign is even more nerve-racking. Alongside this message is a statistic: one in five children is sexually solicited online.

This campaign, along with the many salacious news stories designed to use fear to convince the public about the imminent threat of sexual predation, is extraordinarily misleading. First, the picture of the bedroom with a computer monitor on its desk is intended to suggest that the computer is what puts children at risk. Many children are actually victimized in their bedrooms, but not because of the computer. Second, the statistic, commonly used by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other safety groups, isn’t what it might seem. It is a misappropriation of scholarly research intended to trigger anxiety by capitalizing on the public’s assumption that sexual solicitations occur when sketchy older guys solicit prepubescent children.

The one-in-five statistic comes from a 2000 report by the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC), a highly respected institution dedicated to understanding youth victimization. In its study, CCRC surveyed youth to understand all internet-initiated sexual contact, including that which minors desired. It asked youth about “sexual solicitation,” which was defined as including everything from flirtation to sexual harassment. The survey also asked youth about the age of the initiator. The study found that only four percent of solicitations came from people known to be over twenty-five, whereas 76 percent came from other minors and the rest came from adults aged eighteen to twenty-four. In 75 percent of the incidents reported, youth indicated that they were not upset or afraid as a result of the solicitation. Furthermore, in spite of parents’ worries about the potential of offline harm, 69 percent of solicitations involved no attempt at offline contact. In other words, although any sexual solicitation that a youth receives might be problematic, this statistic does not signal inherently dangerous encounters.

With the rise of social media, many safety advocates presumed that sexual solicitations would spike. Repeating their study in 2006 with an identical definition to allow for comparisons, CCRC found that one in seven minors had been sexually solicited online, a five per cent decline from 2000. Other scholars also found that youth were far more likely to be problematically solicited in online environments that were previously popular but were no longer considered cool. In other words, the teens who were getting into trouble were not those who were hanging out with friends in the online venues most popular with their peers but those who were socializing with strangers elsewhere online. During the years in which MySpace was the most popular online environment, the teens who were engaging in risky encounters online were chatting in obscure chatrooms filled with people looking for trouble.

Although sexual solicitation as it is colloquially understood is rare, it’s important to understand the smaller number of incidents in which youth are violated or harassed, coerced or manipulated. These incidents are unacceptable, and it is important to take steps to prevent any child from ever being victimized. But doing so requires understanding the youth most at risk. In examining cases in which unwanted sexual solicitations have occurred, it’s clear that these cases are not random. Teens who are especially at risk are often engaged in a host of risky sexual encounters online. There’s a strong correlation between risky online practices and psychosocial problems, family issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and trouble in school. In other words, teens who are struggling in everyday life also engage in problematic encounters online. Rather than putting all youth at risk, social media creates a new site where risky behaviors are made visible and troubled youth engage in new types of problematic activity.

Sexual solicitations are disturbing, but most parents are more concerned about the potential for their child to be physically sexually abused. Typically, the vision that parents conjure involves an innocent girl being lured into conversation by an older man who deceives her about his age and then psychologically manipulates her to trust him and distrust others. The discussion of sexual predation often includes the notions of psychological manipulation (also known as “grooming”) and deception, abduction and rape. But by examining police records and interviewing youth, CCRC found that when adults employ the internet in order to commit a sex crime involving a minor, it rarely takes that form.

Not all cases involving the internet involved a stranger. Looking specifically at the small number of arrests for internet-facilitated sexual crimes, CCRC found that approximately one in five (18 percent) involved victims’ family members or offline acquaintances such as family friends or neighbors. Even in cases in which the perpetrator was not someone that the victim initially knew, the perpetrator rarely deceived the teen. More often than not, the abused teens were aware of the offender’s age when they chatted online. Surprisingly, many teens were more deceptive about their age, intentionally portraying themselves as older. In criminal cases that prompted an arrest, the teens involved were typically in high school and the men they were encountering were most commonly in their twenties or early thirties. Their online conversations were sexual in nature, and the teens knew that sex was in the cards before meeting the offender in person. These abused teens believed that they were in love and often had sex with the offender on multiple occasions. As CCRC explained, these encounters often took the legal form of statutory rape. Statutory rape is a criminal offense to prevent adults from using their status, experience, and authority to manipulate youth into engaging in sexual acts. At the same time, there is a significant difference between an abduction rape scenario and a statutory rape scenario. In the latter, youth often believe that they should have the right to consent to such an encounter, even if the law and their parents disagree. This difference matters because it affects what kinds of interventions are needed. What motivates teens to engage in these power-laden sexual encounters is often a desire for attention and validation in light of problems at home, mental health issues, or a history of abuse. Although the dynamics surrounding individual cases are often complex—and there are both legal and social issues at play—the teenagers who are victimized are at risk in different ways than is typically imagined by mainstream media. Helping combat this form of sexual exploitation requires a different model than the one presented by To Catch a Predator.

In order to intervene successfully, it is essential to understand the dynamics that surround the sexual victimization of children. What’s needed to combat grooming, deception, and abduction rape is very different than what’s needed to address the underlying issues that motivate a young person to engage in risky sexual encounters or to deliberately put themselves in vulnerable situations. Language that positions youth as passive victims diverts the public’s attention from the marginalized youth who are the most common victims of sexual abuse. By focusing media attention on potential sex crimes committed by evil, older men, the mythical construction of the online sexual predator can obscure the unhealthy sexual encounters that youth are more likely to experience.

Unhealthy Sexual Encounters

In 2011, Rolling Stone published an exposé of a young woman named Kirsten “Kiki” Ostrenga that depicted what can happen when teen sexuality, attention, social media, and mental health issues crash headlong into one another. After her family moved from Illinois to Florida, Kirsten struggled to make friends. When classmates started teasing her for being an outsider, she stopped trying to fit in, preferring to wear what she described as “scene queen” clothing. In order to find a community of like-minded souls, she turned to the internet, where she developed a digital persona whom she called Kiki Kannibal. Online, she sold jewelry and shared modeling photos, collected followers and posted fashion advice.

When she was thirteen, Kiki met a young man by the name of Danny Cespedes on MySpace. Kiki was desperate for attention and validation when she met Danny, a teen boy who told her that he was seventeen even though he had recently turned eighteen. Kiki and Danny chatted online for a while. As Kiki’s fourteenth birthday arrived, Danny asked her mom for permission to meet Kiki. They met at a local mall on her birthday, with Kiki’s mom in attendance. Kiki’s mom was impressed by Danny’s politeness and supported the relationship. The two started dating, and Danny regularly spent hours at Kiki’s house.

One night, Danny was acting drunk, so Kiki’s parents allowed him to spend the night at their house. After everyone had gone to bed, he forced himself onto Kiki. Although she was uncomfortable with the encounter, their relationship continued. As time went on, Danny started acting more and more bizarre. Kiki’s parents began to worry, and eventually, Kiki tried to break up with Danny. He attempted suicide. Their relationship became rocky, and, through a series of conversations online, Kiki learned that Danny had dated a series of girls aged thirteen to fifteen, many of whom had had similar forced sexual encounters with him. She eventually told her parents what happened, and they called the police. After collecting extensive evidence, the police attempted to arrest Danny on seven felony counts of statutory rape. When they cornered him, he threw himself over a nearby railing. He died on impact. As Rolling Stone reported, “Kiki’s rapist and first love was dead.”

The article clearly portrays Danny Cespedes as a disturbed individual, but the article also highlights how Kiki believed that she was madly in love with the boy who raped her. This dynamic, far from being rare, is often the reality in cases of statutory rape. By all accounts, Danny manipulated and hurt a series of young girls, preying on their vulnerability and then abusing them. But Danny was also the product of abuse. He came from a chaotic household in which prison, violence, and threats were common threads. His father had been deported after being convicted of a sexual crime against a minor. Kiki’s parents had felt bad for Danny, not realizing that he was continuing the cycle of abuse.

The internet played multiple roles in this story. It was through the internet that Kiki found Danny, but it was also through the internet that the other girls found each other and learned that they were not alone. All the girls that Danny abused had willingly connected with him online and had believed themselves to be in love. Because of their feelings toward Danny, they suppressed their feelings about his sexual violations until they learned that it was a pattern.

Although Danny sexually assaulted Kiki when he forced himself on her, the police chose to address this as statutory rape, because the age difference alone meant that he was violating the law, making it much easier to prove. For many teens, statutory rape laws can be complicated and controversial. Although they are designed to protect young people from predatory acts—such as Danny’s—age differences alone do not necessarily imply abuse.

In 2009, I interviewed a black fifteen-year-old named Sydnia who lived in Nashville. Unlike many of her peers, she used MySpace to meet new people, notably other lesbians. One day, while downtown, she approached a woman whom she recognized from MySpace. They had been talking and flirting online but had never met, nor had Sydnia intended to meet her. During that chance encounter, Sydnia got the woman’s number and they started texting. Over time, they became lovers, and when I met Sydnia the two had been dating for over a month. Although Sydnia obscured her girlfriend’s age when discussing their relationship with me, she made a passing reference to the fact that her girlfriend could go to bars even though she could not, making her girlfriend at least twenty-one. As we talked about their relationship, I learned that Sydnia had introduced her girlfriend to her mother and that her mother approved, enough even to tease her about the relationship; teasing was a central component of their mother-daughter bond. Yet Sydnia clearly recognized that her relationship was taboo. When I asked about her girlfriend’s age, she balked and indicated that my question was off-limits. Sydnia was aware that the age difference mattered, if not to her, then at least to an outsider. At a different point in our conversation, we talked about online safety, and Sydnia told me that she had heard about online sexual predators but had never known anyone who was attacked by them. I didn’t have the heart to tell Sydnia that, taken from another perspective, her girlfriend could be viewed as an online predator.

Unlike Kiki and Sydnia, most of the teens I interviewed met their older boyfriends or girlfriends through friends, family, religious activities, or in other face-to-face encounters. Although parents in more privileged communities broadly condemned teens’ relationships with older individuals, attitudes regarding age and teen sexuality are not universal. In many lower-income and immigrant communities I visited, it was widely acceptable for a teen girl to date an older man. Some of the parents that I met even encouraged such relationships, indicating that an older man would be more mature and responsible than a teenage boy and that he might take care of her. Even though those in the more privileged communities I visited often ridiculed such a perspective, I couldn’t help but find it ironic that the most popular young adult fiction book in those same communities at that time was Twilight, a love story focused on a teen girl and a 104-year-old vampire in which their age difference is a central plot point.

In some communities, an age difference is seen as inherently suspicious, but it does not always result in harmful relationships. Nor are same-age relationships inherently healthy. No parent wants his or her child to be exploited or abused, but age is not necessarily a defining factor in problematic relationships. Some teenagers develop unhealthy relationships with older people, but some also develop deeply problematic if not abusive relationships with their peers. Unfortunately, teen dating violence is not uncommon, and it typically involves teens in relationships with same-age peers.

Age differences may be taboo, but teens’ interest in adults is not new. Furthermore, the taboo of a marked age difference often fuels teens’ interest in older people. Fiction often romanticizes star-crossed lovers of different ages, and countless vampire tales recount older men being enamored of teen girls. Teens have long fantasized about older celebrities, and even teachers and countless teen films reproduce these frames. Teens have also consistently engaged in risky activities in an effort to get attention and validation from older people. My age cohort trafficked in fake college IDs so that we could attend local frat parties. Getting attention from older people can often be a source of status for teens. None of this is to say that there aren’t unhealthy relationships between people of different ages, but focusing on age can obscure as much as it reveals.

A Parent’s Worst Nightmare

The internet may make it easier for adults and teens to engage in inappropriate conversations, but a conversation with a stranger does not inherently put youth at risk. For all the ways that the internet allows people to connect, there is still a physical gap between interlocutors. Unlike teens’ encounters with predatory adults in face-to-face settings, it is not easy for an online conversation to move offline without a teen’s knowledge.

Abduction by strangers is rare: when children are abducted, it is usually by a noncustodial parent. Yet the prospect of abduction by a stranger sends chills down the spine of any parent and sends communities into overdrive to get the word out because the first twenty-four hours matter tremendously in recovering a missing child. When a child disappears, people drum up media attention in the hopes of finding the child before anything worse happens. The American public often hears about abductions in this crucial window of time, but not all reported cases turn out to be what they may at first seem.

In February 2006, thirteen-year-old Alexandra Nicole Dimarco and fifteen-year-old Alexis Anne Beyer disappeared in the middle of the night from the same condominium complex in Los Angeles. All signs seemed to point to abduction: the girls left behind their wallets and prescription medication, and they had not packed anything of sentimental value. The girls’ parents contacted the media, informing a journalist that the girls had been talking with strangers on MySpace. A headline in a Los Angeles paper read “Mothers Think Girls Were Lured Away by Suitors.” Media coverage was swift, and the girls’ pictures appeared on local television and across the town.

Meanwhile, the police began their investigation in the hopes of finding the girls as quickly as possible. Given the parents’ reports of trouble involving MySpace, the police contacted the company. The company began working with local law enforcement to help. Although the parents had publicly pegged MySpace as the conduit, both girls had stopped logging onto the social network site a week before they disappeared. Alexis’s mother told the media that she had banned her daughter from using the site after Alexis had allegedly met men on MySpace who had been calling the house looking for her before she disappeared.

As more information emerged, the initial portrait of abducted friends grew murky. In talking with MySpace representatives, I learned that the girls logged into their accounts two hours after they’d disappeared—from a computer in another part of Los Angeles. Using this information, police officers were able to identify the location of the girls, and they sent out a rescue team. At that point, the public still believed that the girls had been abducted, but what investigators found through MySpace suggested otherwise. The content and intensity of messages between the two girls suggested that they were lovers, that their parents disapproved of their relationship, and that they had been forbidden from seeing each other or communicating online.

When the police arrived at the girls’ suspected location, they found that the girls were safe, that they had chosen to run away, and that one in particular was not interested in going home. No scary, older male sexual predator had lured them away. They’d run away together to get away from their parents.

Relying on information from the girls’ parents and wanting to help, the media was quick to accept the conclusion that the girls had been abducted but did little to correct the original breathless story. News organizations reported that the police had found the girls but did not provide details about what had actually happened. In talking with families in the Los Angeles region, I found that many had heard that the girls had been abducted because of MySpace, but no one I met had learned that they had actually run away.

It’s not clear whether the girls’ parents knew that they had run away when they told the police that the girls had been abducted, nor is it clear whether they referenced MySpace to increase the likelihood that journalists would cover the story, but the combination prompted immediate action by both law enforcement and the company while also triggering a media circus. In capitalizing on people’s fear of new technologies and abduction, stories like this may prompt action, but they also help to reproduce the culture of fear. They leave the public with an even more exaggerated conception of the risks that youth face while failing to address the dynamics that prompt teens to engage in risky behaviors in the first place.

Society often blames technology for putting youth at risk, but the traces that youth leave behind can be valuable in making certain that they are safe. When Alexandra and Alexis ran away, technology’s traces and MySpace’s willingness to collaborate with law enforcement enabled the police to track down the two girls extraordinarily quickly. The public never saw this side of the story.

Blaming the Technology

In February 2007, a girl in Colorado named Tess killed her mother with the help of her boyfriend, Bryan. When the news was reported on TV, the takeaway was, “A girl with MySpace kills her mother.” The implication was that Tess had become deviant because of her use of MySpace and that this had prompted her to murder her mother. This was not the first time that the public blamed communication or entertainment media for inciting a teen to kill. In 1999, video games and the band Marilyn Manson supposedly prompted two boys to shoot their classmates at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. After two young women in New Jersey died by suicide during a wave of teenage deaths in 1987, the community blamed Metallica because one of the girls left behind a letter referencing the song “Fade to Black,” which directly addresses emptiness and pain and makes implicit overtures to suicide. Even though the technological platform provided by MySpace is different than the content produced by popular musicians, it is not uncommon for people to try to make sense of teens’ violent acts by turning to the media that they embrace.

Curious to learn more about Tess, I decided to see whether her MySpace page was publicly accessible; it was. What I saw was heartbreaking. For months, she had documented her mother’s alcoholic rages through public postings. She left detailed accounts of how her mother physically abused her and psychologically tormented her. Her comments and messages were flush with emotional outpourings, frustration and rage, depression and confusion. In one post, she explained:

Everyone knows the story of me and my mom . . . and everyone knows how much I’ve tried to fix it my whole life. And everyone knows how it never works. I tried to get her help. I tried moving to California. I tried moving back to Colorado. I tried moving in with CJ, Hassan, Jermy and Bryan, then Burt and Bryan. Then moving back home with Bryan. And its just never enough. I could write a book about how confusing it is trying to please that woman . . . and trying to do whatever I can to get her to stop drinking. Like honestly, I’d do anything. But nothing really ever works. And the shit that goes on at home, frays out and effects every part of my life.

Tess documented her experiences and emotional confusion extensively. On MySpace, she described her struggles with being bipolar, her decision to start abusing alcohol, and her own confusion about how to make her life work. Her friends had left comments, offering emotional support and asking after her. But it was clear that they were in above their heads. In scouring the comments, I found no indication that an adult had been present in any of those conversations.

After Tess’s arrest, her profile turned into a public discussion board. Acquaintances and friends alike were leaving all sorts of comments— hateful, supportive, and concerned. Reading through them, I found that one girl, who appeared to be a close friend of Tess’s, was regularly defending Tess to detractors. This friend’s page was also public, filled with heart-wrenching confusion, hurt, and uncertainty. Unable to ignore this girl’s pain, I reached out to her to make sure she had support behind her. We exchanged a few messages as I offered Colorado-based resources for her to get help. She told me about how all of Tess’s friends knew that Tess’s mom beat her, but no one knew what to do. No adult was willing to listen. This young woman went on to tell me that some of Tess’s friends had reported the MySpace posts to teachers but that, because the school blocked MySpace, teachers said that they were unable to look into the matter. Lost, and distrustful of adults in their community, her friends didn’t know where else to go.

As the story unfolded, I learned that social workers had been informed of potential abuse from teachers but that nothing was done. Apparently, there wasn’t enough physical evidence to make this case a priority. Social services had not looked at her MySpace page or talked with her friends.

Even in the aftermath, the teens in Tess’s life felt powerless, unable even to get support in their community. I counseled Tess’s friend into seeking support from a trained adult, unable to be a proper counselor for her from afar. I gave her the names of hotlines and counselors who might be able to help. I offered her information she could give to her friends. She clearly had no adult to whom she could turn. Instead, she was lashing out at those who attacked her online as her sole way of coping.

When teens are struggling like Tess’s friend was, they often turn to social media. Some engage in risky behavior, but many more make visible the challenges they are facing: crying out for help through their posts and behavior online. All too often, their pleas go unseen or are ignored. Sometimes, this is because those posts are anonymous, which make them impossible to track down. But in other cases, no one bothers to look or ask questions.

In September 2012, Canadian fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd posted a nine-minute video on YouTube entitled “My Story: Struggling, Bullying, Suicide, Self Harm,” in which she used note cards to describe how she was sexually harassed and blackmailed by an anonymous individual online and tormented by classmates at school. She described being tricked into sexual acts, being beaten by girls at school, and attempting suicide. She accounted for her insecurity and anxiety as well as her attempts to get help. Although the description that she provided for this video states, “I’m struggling to stay in this world, because everything just touches me so deeply. I’m not doing this for attention. I’m doing this to be an inspiration and to show that I can be strong,” the final two cards she displayed read, “I have nobody . . .Ineedsomeone☹”and“MynameisAmandaTodd.. . .”Amonth later, Amanda died by suicide at her home in British Columbia. Afterward, her video spread widely.

The internet is not just a place where people engage in unhealthy interactions. It’s also a place where people share their pain. Although not all youth who are struggling cry out for help online, many do. And when they do, someone should be there to recognize those signs and react constructively. Increasingly, there are tremendous opportunities to leverage online traces to intervene meaningfully in teens’ lives. But it requires creating a society in which adults are willing to open their eyes and pay attention to youth other than their own children.

Eyes on the Digital Street

The risks that youth face online are not evenly distributed. Teens who are most at risk online are often struggling everywhere. And although many parents are deeply involved in their own children’s lives, not all teens are lucky enough to have engaged or stable parents.

During my research, I met teens who looked after addicted parents, homeless teens struggling to survive, and teens whose parents were too focused on their work to notice them. All too often, teens who engage in risky behaviors do so in reaction to what’s happening at home or in the hopes that their parents might notice.

In 2008, researchers Melissa Wells and Kimberly Mitchell surveyed youth about potentially risky online behaviors. They found that 15 per cent of a nationally representative sample of American youth with online access reported experiencing sexual or physical abuse or high parental conflict in the preceding year. These young people were labeled as “high risk” and were disproportionately likely to be older, African American, and/or not living with their biological parents. They also showed significantly more problematic online behavior than the rest of the sample. Youth reporting online victimization or experiences with sexual solicitation show similar risk factors as those who are vulnerable in offline contexts: they might experience sexual or physical abuse, parental conflict, substance use, low caregiver bonding, depression, sexual aggression, and other negative issues. Regular development of close relationships via the internet is also correlated with problems offline, including a poor home environment in which there is conflict or a poor caregiver-child relationship, depression, previous sexual abuse, and delinquency. The presence of unhealthy offline relationships may thus increase the risk of internet-based sexual victimization.

It can become a vicious cycle. Engaging in risky online behaviors— including speaking with strangers about sex—is intrinsically problematic as well as a signal of broader problems. Youth who are struggling are more likely to use less widely known services and to seek more attention from people they meet online, while those who have experienced negative offline encounters were 2.5 times more likely to receive unwanted sexual solicitation than other youth. When teens are crashing, they engage in activities that are more likely to magnify their troubles. And when we see teens whose online activities look problematic, they’re often using technology to make visible a broader array of problems that they’re facing in every part of their lives.

Although most teens are doing okay, those who aren’t really aren’t. While, as discussed in the chapter on privacy, many teens encode what’s happening in their lives so that it’s not visible, others are quite open about the troubles they face. In these situations, the digital environment becomes a platform for displaying their pain to the world. When we see these teens’ outbursts, it’s easy to blame the technology because, for most of us, truly at-risk youth are otherwise invisible. Offline, those from abusive homes or facing mental health crises are often struggling in isolation or in an environment where no adult is paying attention. Online, they can be visible. And what they share in plain sight is often frightening for people who imagine that childhood is always a precious experience to be cherished. Although the internet may not be an inherently dangerous place, it’s certainly a place where we can see kids who are in danger, if we are willing to look.

In protecting their own children, many parents turn a blind eye to the struggles others are facing; they go out of their way to keep their children from encountering those who are struggling. Moving to the suburbs or into a gated community are just two examples of how wealthier parents have historically tried to isolate their children from the rawness of less privileged environments. And when mental health issues seep through, many people try to ignore what’s happening. One of the reasons that the parents I met fear the internet is because they believe it makes it harder for them to set boundaries and isolate themselves and their teens from communities in which the values are different or teens are not doing well. This results in fewer adults being willing to help those who are seriously struggling. And when the message that teens get is one of isolation, few teens know what to do, where to go, or how to cope when things do go wrong.

Parents and society as a whole often use fear to keep youth from engaging in practices that adults see as dangerous. This can backfire, undermining trust and resulting in lost opportunities. I grew up with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” messages alongside images like cracked eggs in a frying pan with the caption, “This is your brain on drugs.”

Like many of my peers, I was taught to fear drugs. In rebellion, some of my classmates began experimenting with marijuana in early high school. Once they realized that pot didn’t destroy their brains any more than alcohol did, many became vocal critics of the war on drugs, convinced that adults were trying to dupe them. Unfortunately, the all-encompassing “drugs are bad” message left no room for nuance, and I watched as some of my classmates began exploring cocaine and then crystal methamphetamine with the logic that these drugs must be equivalent to marijuana, since they had been lumped together in the war on drugs. I watched numerous classmates struggle with addiction for years. Looking back, I’m frustrated by how the fear-driven abstinence-only message regarding drugs left no room for meaningful conversation, let alone a framework for understanding abuse or addiction. When adults jump to fear and isolationism as their solution to managing risk, they often undermine their credibility and erode teens’ trust in the information that adults offer.

Many teens turn to networked publics to explore a wider world, and that often includes a world that their parents want to protect them from. When parents create cocoons to protect their children from potential harms, their decision to separate themselves and their children from what’s happening outside their household can have serious consequences for other youth, especially those who lack strong support systems. Communities aren’t safe when everyone turns inward; they are only safe when people work collectively to help one another and those around them. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban theorist Jane Jacobs argues that society benefits when everyone is willing to contribute their attention to the dynamics of the street. The more eyes there are on the street, the safer a community is.

Jacobs is arguing not for a form of surveillance in which powerful entities regulate social behavior through an unwanted gaze but for one in which people collectively look out for vulnerable populations and intervene when needed. People may appear to ignore a child biking down the street, but in a healthy community, if the child falls off the bike, concerned individuals will come out to help because they are all paying attention. Young people need the freedom to explore and express themselves, but we all benefit from living in an environment in which there’s a social safety net where people come together to make sure that everyone’s doing okay. Far from being an abuse of power, Jacob’s notion of shared eyes on the street provides a necessary form of structural support in an individualistic society.

Through social media, teenagers have created digital streets that help define the networked publics in which they gather. In an effort to address online safety concerns, most adults respond by trying to quarantine youth from adults, limit teens’ engagement online, or track teens’ every move. Rhetoric surrounding online predation is used to drum up fear and justify isolation. But neither restrictions nor either adult or institutional surveillance will help those who are seriously struggling. Instead of trying to distance ourselves from teens in this new media, we have a unique opportunity to leverage visibility and face the stark and complex dynamics that shape teens’ lives head on. If we want to make the world a safer place, we need people to pay attention to what’s happening in their communities, not just in their households. We need concerned adults and young people to open their eyes on the digital street and reach out to those who are struggling. And we need to address the underlying issues that are at the crux of risky behaviors rather than propagate distracting myths. Fear is not the solution; empathy is.

You’ve just read a chapter from It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, published by Yale University Press. Author danah boyd is a Principle Researcher at Microsoft Research.

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