First Monday

To catch a predator? The MySpace moral panic by Alice E. Marwick

This paper examines moral panics over contemporary technology, or “technopanics.” I use the cyberporn panic of 1996 and the contemporary panic over online predators and MySpace to demonstrate links between media coverage and content legislation. In both cases, Internet content legislation is directly linked to media–fueled moral panics that concern uses of technology deemed harmful to children. This is of particular interest currently as a new Internet content bill, the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), is being debated in the U.S. Congress. The technopanic over “online predators” is remarkably similar to the cyberporn panic; both are fueled by media coverage, both rely on the idea of harm to children as the justification for Internet content restriction, and both have resulted in carefully crafted legislation to circumvent First Amendment concerns. Research demonstrates that legislation proposed — or passed — to curb these problems is an extraordinary response; it is misguided and in many cases masks the underlying problem.


Introduction: The cyberporn panic
What is MySpace?
MySpace and online predators
MySpace privacy
The Deleting Online Predators Act
Is this a moral panic?
Critically examining the claims



Introduction: The cyberporn panic

On 3 July 1995, Time magazine published a photo of a horrified child on their cover with the tagline “Cyberporn: A new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is. Can we protect our kids — and free speech?” (Elmer–DeWitt, 1995). The article was precipitated by a new study released by Carnegie Mellon, one of the premiere computer science schools in the country. The study found that 83.5 percent of online images were pornographic, and that adult material available online was more extreme and problematic than its print and video equivalents (Rimm, 1995).

The day after the Time issue was published, Iowa Senator Charles Grassey directly referred to the Rimm study on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Congress was in the process of debating the Communications Decency Act (CDA), an amendment to the Telecommunications Act which made it a federal crime to make pornographic materials available online where children could view them. Grassley had read the Time magazine cover story and gave a strident speech to Congress the day after it was published:

Eighty–three point five percent of all computerized photographs available on the Internet are pornographic. Mr. President, I want to repeat that: 83.5 percent of the 900,000 images reviewed — these are all on the Internet — are pornographic, according to the Carnegie Mellon study. Now, of course, that does not mean that all of these images are illegal under the Constitution. But with so many graphic images available on computer networks, I believe Congress must act and do so in a constitutional manner to help parents who are under assault in this day and age. There is a flood of vile pornography, and we must act to stem this growing tide, because, in the words of Judge Robert Bork, it incites perverted minds. [1]

Grassley was so taken by the Cyberporn story that he entered it, full–text, into the Congressional Record, along with a Newsweek story titled “No Place for Kids? A Parent’s Guide to Sex on the Net,” and a Spectator piece that referred to the Internet as “an electronic sink of depravity.” During the same session, Nebraska Senator James Exon asked Grassley:

Mr. EXON: May I inquire of my friend from Iowa, did he have printed in the Record that portion of the Time magazine article from this morning’s Time magazine?

The PRESIDING OFFICER: The Chair will observe he did.

Mr. EXON: I thank the Chair.

If it was not referenced, I would reference the graphic picture on the front of Time magazine today, which I think puts into focus very distinctly and directly what my friend from Iowa and this Senator has been talking about for a long, long time. [2]

James Exon had come under attack by civil libertarians and free speech activists for authoring the Communications Decency Act, which was widely criticized for violating the First Amendment and limiting Internet speech. The CDA, also known as the “Exon Amendment,” would have imposed a fine or up to two years in jail on any person who:

... knowingly (A) uses an interactive computer service to send to a specific person or persons under 18 years of age, or (B) uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs, regardless of whether the user of such service placed the call or initiated the communication. (Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996)

The CDA was an attempt to regulate both obscenity and indecency on the Internet. The act used the “contemporary community standards” measure to determine what would have been deemed “indecent.” Any operator who took “good faith provisions” to restrict access to minors, such as possession of a credit card or an adult identification number, would not have been liable under the law.

The Cyberporn scare story and Rimm study gave concrete evidence to Exon’s claims that pornography ran rampant on the Internet, was readily available to children, and needed to be tightly controlled. The Time magazine story spawned a nation–wide media interest in the topic and the CDA passed the Senate 84–16. The Telecommunications Act, including the Exon Amendment, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

The Rimm report, though, was far from a typical peer–reviewed scholarly source. Marty Rimm was a 30–year–old undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon (CMU) who had finagled publication in the Georgetown Law Journal by promising spectacular results in exchange for complete secrecy. Law journals are not normally peer–reviewed, but Rimm had ensured that no one would have access to the report before its publication, even editors and professors (Mullin, 1996). Rimm had stipulated exceptional terms of publication that allowed only members of the original research team to view the study before the issue was published. As a result, neither CMU researchers nor Georgetown Law professors were permitted to see the paper, titled “Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway,” before it appeared in the Georgetown Law Journal. Rimm provided Phillip Elmer–DeWitt, the Time journalist, with selected facts from his findings, including the instantly provocative and memorable 83.5 percent statistic (Mullin, 1996).

Unfortunately for all parties involved, Rimm’s results were found to be a combination of shoddy social science methodology, questionable research ethics, and wishful extrapolation. Far from analyzing all online images, Rimm had looked solely at adult bulletin boards and the alt.binaries hierarchy of newsgroups, places where adult content was prevalent (Hoffman and Novak, 1995a; Mullin, 1996). Less than a month later, two marketing professors at Vanderbilt University wrote a lengthy critique of the study that threw its results into question. The 83.5 percent statistic which had prompted the Time story and fueled the entire cyberporn panic turned out to be largely made up (Hoffman and Novak, 1995b).

And yet the Communications Decency Act passed. An injunction was passed before the law went into effect, and on 12 June 1996, it was struck down 9-0 by the U.S. Supreme Court as a First Amendment violation. The government argued the legitimacy of the “contemporary community standards” measure of indecency by citing previous cases, namely Ginsberg v. New York (1968), which regulated the sale of pornography to children under 18, F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation (1978), which involved the regulation of a radio station that had broadcast George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue, and Renton v. Playtime Theaters, Inc. (1986), which upheld zoning laws keeping adult businesses such as cinemas and porn shops out of residential neighborhoods [3].

The Supreme Court did not agree with this defense, arguing instead that:

The CDA differs from the various laws and orders upheld in those cases in many ways, including that it does not allow parents to consent to their children’s use of restricted materials; is not limited to commercial transactions; fails to provide any definition of “indecent” and omits any requirement that “patently offensive” material lack socially redeeming value; neither limits its broad categorical prohibitions to particular times nor bases them on an evaluation by an agency familiar with the medium’s unique characteristics; is punitive; applies to a medium that, unlike radio, receives full First Amendment protection; and cannot be properly analyzed as a form of time, place, and manner regulation because it is a content based blanket restriction on speech. These precedents, then, do not require the Court to uphold the CDA and are fully consistent with the application of the most stringent review of its provisions (Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 1997).

Reno v. ACLU established the precedent that Internet content is entitled to the highest form of First Amendment protection, making further legislative regulation of adult content online difficult. Cyberporn, however, remained a national concern. A little over a year later, Senator Dan Coats (R–IN), determined to circumvent the First Amendment issues which had doomed the CDA, introduced the Child Online Protection Act (COPA).

COPA differed from the CDA in that it used a previously used standard, “harmful to minors,” to determine which content should be regulated, rather than the vague “community standards” statute that the Supreme Court had found objectionable. “Material harmful to minors” was defined as material which “depicts ... in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, an actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post–pubescent female breast” and “taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors” (Child Online Protection Act, 1998). The reasoning behind the “harmful to minors” statute was that it had been used in a handful of state and local cases and upheld by the courts as reasonable. For instance, Ginsburg v. New York (1968) upheld the legality of restricting the sale of “girlie magazines” to minors. COPA had therefore been carefully designed to produce the same effect as the CDA by different mechanisms.

The underlying problem of cyberporn was taken, at this point, as a given. Representative Billy Tauzin of Louisiana made this clear in a speech to the House:

The bill that we are considering today makes an honest attempt, without interference with the First Amendment, to provide that our sons or daughters will not easily access this information without our consent. It is effective because it focuses on the commercial seller of pornography, and it uses a constitutionally already verified protection phrase, “harm to children,” rather than the obscenity phrase that was attempted in the 1996 act and was rejected by the Supreme Court. In short, H.R. 3783 attempts to address all the issues raised by the Supreme Court. It has a narrow prohibition, tighter definition, and a realization that the applicability of the law may change as technology is involved. [4]

The underlying premise stayed constant: that cyberporn was harmful, and that it was so prevalent online that anyone accessing the Internet would have to confront it. This confused the idea of easier access to pornography with forced, unwanted viewing, which removed the concept of choice from the act of Web surfing. Mike Oxley, a representative from Ohio, stated that “the Web is awash in degrading smut. There are literally thousands of sites dedicated to every manner of perversion and brutality. This is nothing less than an attempt to protect childhood.” [5] While paying lip service to constitutional protections, members of Congress used media–fueled ideas of harm to children to justify sweeping restrictions on Internet speech.

In fact, COPA was a clear First Amendment violation. The previous “harmful to minors” statute upheld in Ginsberg had applied only to state laws regulating print content. Senator Leahy from Vermont, during deliberations over COPA, pointed out:

This result runs counter to existing “harmful to minors” law as articulated by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has never approved of a single, national obscenity standard, nor has it approved a “harmful to minors” statute based on a national, as opposed to local, standard. [6]

Leahy’s assertion was entirely correct. Almost as soon as COPA was signed into law, the bill was blocked by an injunction preventing the law from going into effect. This was upheld by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, who found “community standards” too broad a statute. The Supreme Court reviewed this decision, found the reasoning of the Third Circuit Court insufficient, and sent it back to the Third Circuit, who again struck it down. When the federal administration appealed, the Supreme Court, in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (2004), held up the injunction but ruled that a lower court should decide on it. Finally, on 22 March 2007, in the U.S. Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the law was permanently struck down by Judge Lowell A. Reed Jr., who wrote:

I conclude today that COPA facially violates the First and Fifth Amendment rights of the plaintiffs because: (1) at least some of the plaintiffs have standing; (2) COPA is not narrowly tailored to Congress’ compelling interest; (3) defendant has failed to meet his burden of showing that COPA is the least restrictive, most effective alternative in achieving the compelling interest; and (3) COPA is impermissibly vague and overbroad. (ACLU v. Gonzales, 2007)

Since then, many states have passed similar laws attempting to regulate Internet content deemed “harmful to minors,” and many of them have been struck down on similar grounds. Why is this? First, a federal bill that relies on “community standards” ensures that the community with the most stringent community rules will determine national content standards. Second, the lack of national or local boundaries on the Internet means that it is impossible to determine where content will be viewed, making even a local law de facto applicable to worldwide content providers. For example, a New York state statute was struck down on First Amendment and Commerce Clause grounds (American Library Association v. Pataki, 1997) as was a Virginia law (PSINET, Inc. v. Chapman, 2003).

The next federal attempt to regulate online pornography was the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA, 1999). Despite the similar name to COPA, CIPA was written to be far narrower. CIPA held that any school or library that received a specific type of federal funding, known as e–rates, was required to install filters blocking indecent content on computers with Internet access. This was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in a 6–3 opinion (U.S. v. American Library Association Inc., 2003). The Supreme Court maintained that there was a compelling federal interest in restricting minors’ access to pornography, and that since adults can ask for the filters to be removed at any time, the law did not place an unconstitutional speech restriction on adults. The moral panic over cyberporn had finally been crystallized into a piece of constitutional legislation.

This paper is about moral panics over contemporary technology, which I call “technopanics.” I use two examples, the cyberporn panic of 1996 and the contemporary panic over online predators and MySpace, to demonstrate the links between media coverage and content legislation. In both cases, Internet content legislation is directly linked to media–fueled moral panics that concern uses of technology deemed harmful to children. This is of particular interest right now as a new Internet content bill, the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), is being debated in Congress. The technopanic over “online predators” is remarkably similar to the cyberporn panic; both are fueled by media coverage, both rely on the idea of harm to children as the justification for Internet content restriction, and both have resulted in carefully crafted legislation to circumvent First Amendment concerns. While both panics have their roots in legitimate concerns, I am not primarily concerned with the extent of the purported harms. However, my research demonstrates that the legislation proposed (or passed) to curb these problems is an extraordinary response; it is misguided and in many cases masks the underlying problem.

The first part of this paper discusses the cyberporn panic of the mid–1990s and its links to Internet content legislation. Next, I outline a theory of technopanics, using the moral panics literature to examine fears of technology and modernity. The third section examines the current moral panic over social networking sites and in particular, including the DOPA legislation proposed to solve the problem. The fourth part of this paper takes a critical look at the harms of MySpace and online predators in general. I conclude with some recommendations for legislators, parents, and journalists.

Since moral panics are, by definition, public, any study of a moral panic must attempt to access popular discourse. This paper primarily uses Congressional testimony and popular press articles, both national and local, as evidence. Congressional testimony was found by conducting full–text searches of the Congressional Record, a publication which includes every word spoken on the floor of both the House and the Senate. Popular press articles were found through Lexis–Nexis, the Web sites of major and local newspapers, and television network and cable news programs.




The technopanic is an attempt to contextualize the moral panic as a response to fear of modernity as represented by new technologies. When considering social discourse around advances like text messaging, genetically modified food, nuclear power, violent video games, and so forth, certain social responses are common to particular types of new technologies. Kirsten Drotner’s (1999) perceptive analysis of “media panics” traces “common forms of expression” across both time periods and national borders; similarly, John Springhall’s (1998) study of youth and moral panics analyzes concerns over a variety of media products that appeal to teenagers, including “Penny Dreadful” periodicals, gangster films, horror comics and “video nasties.”

Technopanics have the following characteristics. First, they focus on new media forms, which currently take the form of computer–mediated technologies. Second, technopanics generally pathologize young people’s use of this media, like hacking, file–sharing, or playing violent video games. Third, this cultural anxiety manifests itself in an attempt to modify or regulate young people’s behavior, either by controlling young people or the creators or producers of media products.

I must distinguish between technopanics over popular media technologies and panics over technologies such as cloning or nuclear power. While the furor over the latter two is as significant as the current panic over MySpace, it does not focus on young people. More research is needed to create a theory of technopanics that incorporates this duality of anxiety. For example, we might ask what types of technologies generally spur technopanics? Is the concern intrinsically generational? An examination of the moral panics literature shows that children are frequently the locus of concern:

Whenever the introduction of a new mass medium is defined as a threat to the young, we can expect a campaign by adults to regulate, ban or censor, followed by a lessening of interest until the appearance of a new medium reopens public debate. Each new panic develops as if it were the first time such issues have been debated in public and yet the debates are strikingly similar. [7]

Springhall characterizes moral panics over teenage popular culture as part of an overall discourse reacting to modernity. He echoes Kirsten Drotner’s essay on modernity and media panics, stating that “the technical and cultural competence young people gain as spin–offs of media use pose a potential threat to existing power relations within society. Media panics can help to re–establish a generational status quo, that the pioneering cultural position of the young has undermined, by targeting violence or sex in teenage but not in adult forms of entertainment.” [8]

In general, modernity has increased parents’ worries about children. Joel Best (1990), in his study of the moral panic of the 1980s over missing children, writes that “As a society’s economy industrializes, its cities grow; health care improves, and birth rates fall. While preindustrial parents raised large families, knowing that many infants would not reach adulthood, modern parents have fewer children and expect that each will survive. With fewer children, parents have more at stake with each child, the emotional ties between parent and child become closer, and children receive better treatment.” [9] However, the funneling of this concern into fears of abduction and molestation by strangers, rather than the far more common scenarios of neglect or deprivation, has led to the modern spate of moral panics over children (Zgoba, 2004), including child abuse (Hacking, 1991), ritual sexual abuse (Victor, 1998), abductions by strangers (Zgoba, 2004), and pedophilia (Critcher, 2002).

A moral panic generally consists of widespread social fear and concern over a group of deviants who display a behavior that is considered “evil.” Erich Goode and Nachman Ben–Yehuda point out that this fear must be out of proportion to the supposed behavior [10] — worry about, say, a legitimately problematic, large, and active group of people would not consist of a moral panic, which by definition is disproportionate to harm. Sociologist Stanley Cohen (1972) was the first to define moral panics, studying the classic “mods and rockers” teenage conflict in 1950s Britain. His influential theory incorporated the idea of the deviant group as scapegoat or “folk devil,” typically characterized as pure evil or as outside the realm of human morality. Cohen also advanced the theory that moral panics are prompted by social change, as well as the argument that “moral panics are generated by the media, or by particular interest groups,” or “moral entrepreneurs.” [11].

There are three reasons to use the theoretical framework of the moral panic as a foundation for technopanic theory. First, multiple scholars have identified the mid–90s cyberporn “crisis” as a moral panic (Jenkins, 1998; Lawson and Comber, 2000). Second, I believe that in order to understand technopanics over “online predators,” you must understand previous panics over cyberporn, child molesters, ritual sex abuse, and the like. Finally, moral panics theory places the MySpace moral panic into a historical continuum which includes panics over other types of technologies and signs of modernity.

Goode and Ben–Yehuda elaborated on Cohen’s theory by specifying three particular models of moral panic causality: grassroots, elite–engineered, and interest group. The first model presumes that public, grassroots anxiety over social stresses (new technologies, social changes, and so on) is mapped to a particular group which serves as a scapegoat. In the second model, elites or incumbents, including government actors, the wealthy, or socially influential persons, strategically create a moral panic to divert attention from social problems, in essence creating a distraction. In the third model, moral crusades by special interest groups, such as activist groups, community organizers or non–profits give unintentional rise to moral panics.

This causality has been complicated by Stuart Hall, et al. (1978) in Policing the Crisis, which diverts from Cohen’s understanding of elite–engineered panics. Hall argues that the government, specifically the police and judiciary, are the root of the moral panic. He contrasts this with the idea of media causality, arguing that governmental panic is reproduced by the media, rather than produced by it. This rejects the idea of a grassroots or “deep–seated cultural cause” [12] for moral panics and is therefore a political viewpoint which allows Hall to position his work as an intervention. Hunt (1997) similarly complicates the grassroots view of moral panics which locates moral panic in a genuine public concern about a problem. Hunt questions the assumption that a concern does exist, pointing out that this could be taken to mean that a panic is justified. This point of view accepts the grassroots view of moral panics but rejects Hall’s “elite–engineered” model.

This tri–part model is not fixed. The MySpace predator panic fits the grassroots model in some ways, since general social concerns about new technologies, the rise of adolescent narcissism, and general teenage behavior can be mapped onto fear and hatred of online predators. But the predator scare is also fueled by groups such as Perverted Justice (McCollum, 2007), parent advocacy groups, educators, youth ministers, and other private actors. This fits with Drotner’s characterization of the role of groups in media panics: “the proponents often have professional stakes in the subject under discussion as teachers, librarians, cultural critics or academic scholars.” [13]

Concern over predators pre–dates any one group’s involvement, as it can be clearly traced back to outrage over cyberporn in the mid–90s. However, the idea of a spontaneous uprising of cultural concern seems overly simplistic, particularly when considering the media’s role in fueling the panic. The elite–engineered model can be summarily rejected. While anxiety over MySpace could be viewed as a distraction from divisive political issues such as the war in Iraq, it is highly unlikely that empirical evidence would show that this moral panic was specifically engineered by military or political elites to divert attention from political problems.

The trope of the teenager who possesses more technological knowledge than her adult counterpart and can program a VCR or set up a home computer is a powerful one. This image is furthered by movies from Wargames to Hackers to Jurassic Park, celebrations of young techno–entrepreneurs like Shawn Fanning and the wunderkinds of YouTube, and descriptions of the cultural competency demonstrated by teens as they blog, post digital pictures, talk to each other through instant messenging and interact through Facebook.

This is often portrayed, real or imagined, as something that seems alien or threatening to adults. Drotner claims that teenage technological competency is threatening to status quo power structures: “The social claims and cultural competencies that the young often gain as spin–offs of their media use pose a potential threat to existing power relations in social as well as in cultural and psychological terms. Furthermore, many of these competencies become very visible to the public eye.” [14] The visibility of MySpace and the public–ness of the information posted there is a crucial part of the panics over the site.

Similarly, New York Magazine’s 2007 cover story “Say Everything” claimed a generation gap in understanding about privacy — while older people find the desire to publish personal information online quite baffling, New York concluded that it was merely a generational divide. “In the past ten years, another set of values has sneaked in ... erecting a barrier between young and old. And as it did in the fifties, the older generation has responded with a disgusted, dismissive squawk.” [15] While New York pointed out the many benefits from participating in public digital cultures (“The public life is fun. It’s creative. It’s where their friends are. It’s theater, but it’s also community: In this linked, logged world you have a place to think out loud and be listened to, to meet strangers and go deeper with friends” [16]), this balance is noticeably absent in most media discussions of popular teenage Internet technologies.



What is MySpace?

MySpace is the most popular social networking site in the United States (Lagorio, 2006) and the largest worldwide, with more than 110 million users a month as of January 2008 (Stelter, 2008) [17]. The site was founded in late 2003 by veterans Tom Andersen and Chris DeWolfe, who marketed the site among Los Angeles hipsters and musicians (Krantz, 2006; Hornig, 2007). Initially dismissed as a cheap attempt to emulate the success of Friendster, MySpace overtook its rival due to the former’s propensity for outages and slow response time (Sellers, 2006). This, combined with Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams’ predilection to ban users for providing “inauthentic information,” caused a massive migration to MySpace in 2003 (Sellers, 2006).

The site’s user base grew exponentially and it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2005 for US$580 million dollars (Siklos, 2005). News Corporation is a major media conglomerate with annual revenues of US$27 billion and holdings that include the 20th Century Fox movie studios, the Fox line of television networks, HarperCollins publishing, the New York Post, and a slew of newspapers in Australia and the United Kingdom (“News Corporation,” 2007). A year later, MySpace signed a US$900 million advertising deal with Google that recouped News Corp’s initial investment, as well as causing Google’s stock to rise in equal proportion (Hansell, 2006). Since then, MySpace’s profile has been eclipsed by newer upstart Facebook, but the site still has more page views than any other Web site in the world (Stelter, 2008).

MySpace primarily consists of individual user profiles. When new users sign up, they are given a bare–bones profile structure and encouraged to upload pictures, fill out personal information including height, weight, religion, and favorite movies, and add other users (“friends”) to their network. MySpace provides some customization options and also allows users to cut–and–paste HTML into their profile, which has created an enormous secondary market of MySpace “codes.” Users can add Flash widgets, video players, and other multimedia extensions as well.

The result of these multiple personalization options is a cacophonous variety of profiles, ranging from tasteful pastels to spinning graphics, embedded videos, and flashing backgrounds. Users can message or chat with each other, leave comments on profiles, browse the profiles of others and post bulletins that can be viewed by everyone in their network.

MySpace is secondarily a media community. The largest segment is the music section, which hosts profiles for more than eight million bands (Owyang, 2008). In the last few years, MySpace has become a key part of music industry promotion, with URLs replacing individual band Web sites and independent musicians spending significant amounts of time communicating with fans via the service. MySpace also contains sections for comedy, books, films, comic books and games; these are primarily populated with content from third parties. For example, a movie studio may purchase a custom profile on MySpace, sponsor a contest, or provide a game or profile customization tool that users can use.



MySpace and online predators

MySpace has been consistently portrayed in the mainstream media as a site which facilitates interactions between “online predators” and minors for purposes of sexual activities. These claims about MySpace fall into two broad categories: first, that the site makes it easy for online predators to contact minors, and second, that social networking sites generally lower cultural expectations around privacy, encouraging children to expose more of their lives online. While the effect of the latter is similar to that of the former, the latter also implies that MySpace causes conflicts between children and their future job prospects, university residence policies, and so forth. Good Morning America summarized the concerns: “the site has survived several complaints that it puts young people at risk by making their personal information accessible by anyone, including online predators” (Hernandez, 2006). This paper focuses on the former claim but will touch on the latter in discussions of the role of modernity in technopanics. This section critically examines the term “online predator” and its application to media coverage of MySpace.

The term “online predator” typically refers to people who use the Internet to contact minors for sexual contact. It presumably has its genesis in the more common term “sexual predator” and is almost exclusively used to describe men, as there has been less media coverage of women using the Internet to meet underage boys. “Online predator” first appeared in the mid–1990s; a Lexis–Nexis search of major papers found its first use in a 1995 San Francisco Chronicle story about how the Internet helps gay teens to receive support during the coming–out process (Ford, 1995). Distinct from how the term is currently used, the Ford story both positioned the Internet as helpful for teenagers and criticized sensational media coverage about teenagers online:

Daniel Montgomery, then 15, ran away from home last month not to join an on–line “predator,” as early local media reports sensationally suggested. Rather, he came to meet a gay 16–year–old with whom he’d corresponded in gay and lesbian on–line chat rooms for months (Ford, 1995).

The term remained rare during the 1990s. Searching Lexis–Nexis to trace the number of stories in which the phrase appeared showed that “online predator” slowly grew in popularity in the past decade, becoming more common in 2005 and breaking into mainstream use in 2007 (see Table 1). A preliminary search of references in 2008 found more than 110 in only the first two months of the year. While this is far from a precise measurement, it demonstrates the upward growth of the phase’s recent popularity.


Table 1: Use of “online predators” in major newspapers by year
YearNumber of stories in Lexis–Nexis major papers
with the phrase “online predators”
2008 (Jan.–Feb.)110


The show “To Catch a Predator” on NBC’s Dateline has contributed to the popularity and prevalence of the term “online predator.” “To Catch a Predator” depicts a sting operation aimed at exposing potential child molesters to a national audience. The program began as a special report on Dateline called “Dangerous Web,” but garnered high enough ratings to become a weekly show and a popular culture phenomenon (Dateline, 2007), with parodies appearing on comedy shows like 30 Rock, Studio 60, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and MadTV and in “ripped from the headlines” crime shows like Law and Order. The host, Chris Hansen, has appeared on Oprah, testified in front of a Congressional subcommittee and has released a book detailing his experiences (Hansen, 2007b). Dateline claims that the show has led to the arrest of “200 hundred (sic) potential [emphasis mine] child predators” (Dateline, 2007).

Each episode of the show is set in a different city, where NBC works with local police officers to set up a house which will be the base for the investigation. Dateline pays the volunteer organization Perverted Justice a consulting fee to collect the episode’s “subjects;” Perverted Justice is a group of people who frequent chat rooms pretending to be underage girls and boys for the purpose of engaging men in sexual banter (soliciting a minor online for sex is a federal crime, even if no sexual activity ever occurs). Once phone communication has been established with the subjects, they are encouraged to visit the house with the intent of sexual conduct with an underage girl. The house is full of surveillance cameras, and a cadre of police officers is stationed next door or across the street.

While each episode profiles about ten different men, they are presented in a series of formulaic segments which follow the same basic structure. The subject, who is fully identified throughout the episode, is first shown at the front door or pulling up to the house in his car. An 18–year–old actress, posing as an minor, meets the subject at the door, engages in some idle chat (often asking him if he has brought a gift, which is typically alcohol or condoms), and then tells him she has to fold laundry or get something from another room. The man settles down on the deck or in the living room, and is dramatically surprised by the program’s host Chris Hansen.

Hansen grills the man about his motivations, his intent with the girl, and so forth. The subject is informed that he is on Dateline NBC, at which point he usually becomes visibly upset and begins excusing his behavior. Common defenses include claims that the girl represented herself as over 18, knowledge that the subject was part of a television episode and was just playing along, or denial of planned sexual activity with the girl. Hansen reads excerpts from chat and phone transcripts to demonstrate to viewers that the subject is lying. The subject is subsequently arrested by the local police, sometimes in a dramatic fashion involving multiple officers, chase scenes, or tazers (Hansen, 2005; Hansen, 2007a).

The show’s success has popularized the image of the Internet as full of pedophiles, child molesters and child rapists. While Perverted Justice uses chat rooms, not MySpace, to contact its subjects, the sensationalized media cases where teens have been raped or sexually abused by people they met on MySpace have contributed to this representation. For example, John Wentworth had sexual relations with a 15–year–old girl he met on MySpace and was sentenced to three years in prison as a result (Rozek, 2007). Stephen Letavec met and had sex with a 14–year–old girl who he had been talking to on MySpace for three years (Associated Press, 2007). A 20 year old man raped a 13–year–old Long Island teenager who he met on MySpace (Armario, 2007). The best–known MySpace predator case involves Kathryn Lester, a Michigan teenager, who flew to the West Bank of Jordan to meet a 25–year–old man she had been corresponding with on MySpace (Hernandez, 2006). She was unharmed, but the combination of MySpace and an American teenager traveling alone to the Middle East caused significant media furor.

Other anecdotal accounts of MySpace online predators are far from accurate. A story from the Vermont Times–Argus cites three examples:

In January, in Lafayette, La., a 16–year–old girl was attacked by a 37–year–old man who read her profile on MySpace, and tracked her down at her after–school job. In September, in Vienna, Va., a 17–year–old Virginia Commonwealth University freshman was murdered by a man after her MySpace blog led him directly to her. Last March, a 33–year–old Hughson, Calif., firefighter was arrested for having sex with a 16–year–old boy he met on MySpace (Myers, 2006).

A Web search found these stories reproduced on several other Web sites warning parents about the dangers of MySpace. However, they misrepresent the facts of two–thirds of the cases. I was unable to find any information about the first case, even after searching Lafayette local newspapers. The second case is almost certainly referring to Taylor Behl, who was murdered by an acquaintance, Benjamin Fawley, who Behl had known a year prior to her death. Fawley was a photographer who maintained a goth Web site and was convicted of possession of child pornography after police searched his residence (Nolan, 2005). While there are links to the Internet in Behl’s murder, there is no mention of MySpace in any of the press coverage of Behl’s case and it is unlikely that the site paid a significant part in her very unfortunate death (Duggan and Stockwell, 2005; “Taylor Behl,” 2007).

Only the third case is represented accurately; it refers to Andrew Camanga, a former fireman who was sentenced to a year in jail for having sex with a 16–year–old boy (Associated Press, 2006). While there clearly are reported, documented cases where contact through MySpace led to sexual assault or rape, the sensationalism of the subject has contributed to an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the site in the media.

The popular view of MySpace is summarized during Congressional hearings on the Deleting Online Predators Act by Representative Mike Fitzpatrick, from Pennsylvania:

Social networking sites, best known by the popular examples of MySpace, Friendster and Facebook, have literally exploded in popularity in just a few short years. MySpace alone has over 90 million users and it is growing every day. While these sites were designed to allow their users to share virtual profiles of themselves to friends and like–minded users, the sites at most have become a haven for online sexual predators who have made these corners of the Web their own virtual hunting ground. [18]

Fitzpatrick’s use of “at most” implies that MySpace has no positive virtues and is primarily used by sexual predators to find victims. Clearly, a site with a user base of more than one hundred million accounts will presumably have incidences of criminal behavior similar to a offline population. The idea that MySpace increases or facilitates deviant behavior is taken for granted without critical examination.



MySpace privacy

Other public concerns involve children posting content on MySpace that may compromise their privacy. This narrative maintains that children post personal information, such as their home address or phone numbers, on MySpace, which makes it easy for them to be stalked by online predators. Separate from predators, this connects to a public concern that young people are forsaking valuable privacy. While an in–depth analysis of this subject is beyond the scope of this paper, a few salient points should be addressed; Helen Nissenbaum’s (2004) theory of privacy as contextual integrity is of use here.

MySpace may be disturbing to non–users. It is usual to see scantily clad self–portraits of teenagers displayed on profile pages; both genders engage in explicit, candid discussions on MySpace that often include drug or sexual references. While it can be safely assumed that most American teenagers are familiar with such activities, MySpace is a public forum. Nissenbaum points out that different contexts have differing “governing norms of distribution” of information [19]; on MySpace, actions that would have formerly been confined to teen–only environments like parties or parking lots are played out in a transparent, persistent medium. This creates a conflict between normative views of information flow within MySpace, as MySpace can be viewed as both public and private. To outsiders, MySpace may seem quite public, but to insiders, it seems private, with its own social mores, customs, and norms. Information that would seem appropriate to reveal in private, such as sexual preference or candid remarks about your job, is viewed quite differently in the public realm.

This difference in perceptions of the site has caused much anxiety around children revealing information. For example, Dateline characterized MySpace as “a cyber secret teenagers keep from tech–challenged parents ... It’s a world where the kids next door can play any role they want. They may not realize everyone with Internet access, including sexual predators, may see the pictures and personal information they post” (Stafford, 2006). Parents are frequently urged to keep their children from using MySpace, or at least to monitor their children’s online activity (Myers, 2006; Stafford, 2006).

MySpace has responded to this issue by hiring Himanshu Nigam as Chief Security Officer, who has publicized a variety of safety efforts. These include posting safety tips on the site, cosponsoring the “Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act of 2007” (Parker, 2007), which is discussed in the next section, and working with Sentinel Tech, a security company that is attempting to compile a database of all United States convicted sexual offenders (Kirkpatrick, 2007). MySpace also encourages parents to install Zephyr, a program which keeps track of all MySpace accounts accessed on a particular computer (Ogg, 2007). The company claims to be deleting 30,000 profiles a week based on “inappropriate” behavior (Kirkpatrick, 2007), and now requires the profiles of minors to be “Friends Only,” meaning they can only be contacted by people on their Friends List.



The Deleting Online Predators Act

The Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) follows the general outline of the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Like CIPA, DOPA would require schools and libraries receiving federal funding, specifically “e–rates,” to restrict minor access to “commercial social networking websites and chat rooms” (Deleting Online Predators Act, 2007). DOPA was first introduced in the 2006 legislative session and re–introduced in 2007, responding to criticism that “commercial social networking websites and chat rooms” was too vague (Carvin, 2007).

The 2007 version of DOPA, known as the “Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act,” or S.49, has three parts. The first part triples the fine for Internet providers who fail to report child pornography. The third part regulates the buying and selling of children’s personal information by data brokers. The second is basically DOPA rewritten to be more precise, requiring that the definition of “social networking websites and chat rooms” be specified 120 days after passage of the legislation. The bill lays out the following criteria to be used when determining whether a particular Web site fits the definition:

In determining the definition of a social networking website, the Commission shall take into consideration the extent to which a website (i) is offered by a commercial entity; (ii) permits registered users to create an on–line profile that includes detailed personal information; (iii) permits registered users to create an on–line journal and share such a journal with other users;(iv) elicits highly–personalized information from users; and (v) enables communication among users (Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, 2007).

This legislation may pass in 2008 despite its failure in the 2006 Congress. First, it is almost identical to CIPA, which was upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional. Second, with “online predators” such a timely issue, it is unlikely that legislators will be willing to vote against a bill which sounds, prime facie, effective and necessary.

Unfortunately, DOPA, in any of its guises, is problematic legislation. The definition of “social networking website and chat room” is so broad as to be meaningless, and would include educational and useful Web sites like blogs, Wikipedia, Google Groups, and Yahoo! in the restrictions. Poorer school districts and libraries cannot afford to forgo federal e–rates, which means that the bill would affect poor children disproportionately. PBS blogger and educator Andy Carver points out that plenty of educators use interactive, social Web sites for educational purposes, and that the idea that filters can be easily removed is simply not accurate:

Many school districts do not give individual educators the ability to de–activate filters as needed, either preventing them outright or setting up so much red tape that teachers just don’t bother. Assuming this is the case, even if the bill contains this exception, in practice, many educators won’t have the ability to use interactive sites in their teaching. And there’s nothing stopping schools from ignoring the exception and blocking any site that whiffs of Web 2.0itude, perhaps in the fear that it’s better to be safe than sorry in today’s litigious environment (Carver, 2007).

The bill may be struck down if there is not found to be a compelling federal interest in restricting minors’ access to social networking Web sites, or if the online predator problem is not found to be significant.

In addition to DOPA, other legislative measures targeting MySpace have been proposed, including the “Web Video Violence Act,” which would increase penalties for criminal activities filmed and posted by juveniles on MySpace or YouTube (Web Video Violence Act, 2007; Broache, 2007). The “Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act of 2007” would require convicted sex offenders to provide e–mail addresses along with their physical addresses. This legislation, which is supported by MySpace and Facebook, would make it a federal offense for sex offenders to lie about their age online. It would also dissolve social networking sites of criminal liabilities regarding sex offenders if they used the e–mail address database to block registrations (Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act, 2007; Parker, 2007). However, neither of these proposals has resulted in federal legislation, and it remains to be seen how these laws will be treated by Congress or the courts.

Recently, New York State announced the Electronic Security and Targeting of Online Predators Act (E–STOP), which, like KIDS–PA, requires sex offenders to register e–mail addresses and screen names with the state, and is also supported by Facebook and MySpace (McCarthy, 2008). Other state laws are likely to follow in the absence of federal legislation.



Is this a moral panic?

Goode and Ben–Yahuda (1994) identify five characteristics of a moral panic:

  1. Concern: there is a “heightened level of concern over the behavior of a certain group or category and the consequences that that behavior presumably causes for the rest of society” [20].

  2. Hostility: The group is “collectively designated as the enemy” [21] and viewed as evil, anti–social, and deviant.

  3. Consensus: A majority of population must believe that “the threat is real, serious, and caused by the wrongdoing group members and their behavior” [22].

  4. Disproportionality: Victor writes that the concern is not justified by empirical evidence; that is, “the numbers of deviants are minimal or even non–existent and their harm is very limited or non–existent” [23].

  5. Volatility: Moral panics come to prominence very quickly and fade out after a period of time [24].

In order to determine whether the concern around online predators on MySpace is a moral panic, it is necessary to identify the elements of this panic. In this case, the category of people under scrutiny is online predators, or more specifically pedophiles, child molesters, and pornographers. The behavior in question is using the Internet to engage in sexual behavior with minors. It seems clear from the media coverage, demand for legislation, and salience in popular culture that there is widespread concern around this issue, a social consensus that online predators are bad or even “evil,” and a very hostile view.

So let us examine number four, the idea of disproportionality. Victor applied this model to the panic around ritual child abuse during the 1980s, which shares many similarities with the MySpace moral panic. Both panics focus on children and sexual deviance which is constructed as “evil” from a Christian perspective [25]. But while ten years of study by the FBI found no evidence of Satanic ritual abuse, there are plenty of documented instances of men using the Internet, and specifically MySpace, to meet with minors. Furthermore, Phillip Jenkins’ disturbing and comprehensive look at child pornography on the Internet shows that child pornography is a significant problem, that it is relatively widespread, with approximately 100,000 people worldwide regularly trafficking in images [26], and that it is almost certainly linked to real–world child molestation. Child abuse is also a significant problem in the United States.

Hunt points out that contemporary sociological views of moral panics often ignore real causes and assume that all moral panics are “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This implies that the hysteria from moral panics often compels academics to deny that a problem exists at all. Unfortunately, Hunt points out that real problems can and do exist and whether or not they map accurately to the moral panic, they should not be dismissed [27].

However, the question is not whether child pornography or child abuse exists. I do not want to downplay the seriousness of these issues, but conflating them with MySpace is more a rhetorical, persuasive move than one based in empirical fact. The question is whether there is a widespread problem of online predators using MySpace to elicit underage individuals for sexual activity. In order to justify the passage of sweeping laws restricting all minors’ access to the site, this problem needs to be socially significant. I do not believe that this is a socially significant problem. Rather, I believe that it is indicative of a small, visible number of sensationalized cases that have been used by the media to fuel a moral panic around the site. The idea of the “online predator” is further linked to real harms, such as child abuse and child pornography, to create rhetorical significance for legislative–based action.



Critically examining the claims

During the 2006 and 2007 hearings about online predators, the following claims were made (emphasis mine):

The Deleting Online Predators Act also says to schools and libraries that, as we upgrade protections for kids online in the home, that we also do them in public spaces to, consistently and across the board, deny opportunities to the estimated 50,000 sexual predators online who are online at any one time (Kirk, 2007).

According to a study conducted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in 1998, there were 3,267 tips reporting child pornography. Since then, the number has risen by over 3,000 percent to an outstanding 106,119 tips in 2004 ... . According to Attorney General Gonzales, one in five children has been approached sexually on the Internet. Mr. Speaker, one in five. Worse still, a survey conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that less than one in four children told their parents about the sexual solicitation they received (Fitzpatrick, 2006b).

The FBI reports that child pornography cases have increased more than 2,000 percent over the past decade. And MySpace, which is self–regulated, has removed an estimated 200,000 objectionable profiles since it started in 2003 (Fitzpatrick, 2006b).

The first claim, that “50,000 sexual predators are online at any given time,” was used by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in a speech on online predators. Benjamin Radford’s excellent critical look at the “online predators” panic concluded that:

Attorney General Gonzales had taken his 50,000 Web predator statistic not from any government study or report, but from NBC’s Dateline TV show. Dateline, in turn, had broadcast the number several times without checking its accuracy. In an interview on NPR’s On the Media program, Hansen admitted that he had no source for the statistic, and stated that ‘It was attributed to, you know, law enforcement, as an estimate, and it was talked about as sort of an extrapolated number’ (Radford, 2006b).

McCollum (2007) writes:

Jason McLure, a reporter at Legal Times in Washington, D.C. ... asked the show about the number. Dateline told him that it had gotten it from a retired FBI agent who consulted with the show. When the agent was contacted he wasn’t sure where the number had come from, terming it a “Goldilocks” figure — “Not small and not large.” He added that it was the same figure that was used by the media to describe the number of people killed annually by Satanic cults in the 1980s, and before that was cited as the number of children abducted by strangers each year in the 1970s. Dateline has now disowned the number, saying solid statistics about Internet predators are hard to find.

Second, the link between MySpace and child pornography is tenuous, if non–existent. Although Phillip Jenkins’ 2001 study was written before the advent of social networking sites, he makes it clear that most child pornography aficionados are keenly aware of the potential law enforcement consequences and as a result use anonymizers, Freenet, password–protected document archives, proxy servers, encryption, and other sophisticated technological techniques to engage in their pursuits [28]. It is very unlikely that members of such a subculture would openly trade child pornography on a mainstream site monitored by law enforcement. Indeed, there have been no cases, alleged or actual, where MySpace has been directly linked to child pornography. The idea that MySpace use leads to entrapment in child pornography rings is a common rhetorical tactic whereby harms are linked together: sexual solicitation online leads to sexual activity which leads to the creation of child pornography. There is no evidence that this is true.

This becomes clear when we take a close look at the statistics cited by members of Congress. There are two claims made. The first is that the number of tips about child pornography has increased 3,000 percent in the last decade. This is quite misleading, since the National Incident–Based Reporting System (NIBRS) CyberTipline was created in 1988 and only gathered data from 12 states a decade ago, in 1997 (Finkelhor and Ormrod, 2004). Additionally, it is clear that “tips” about child pornography do not constitute child pornography, or even map to criminal cases. Furthermore, the increased attention to child pornography in the last decade has most likely increased public interest, and subsequently tips. Even so, it is a possibility that this statistic does represent an increase in child pornography.

The second statistic, that child pornography cases have increased 2,000 percent, is more persuasive. Fortunately, it is not true. There has been an increase in the pornography–related crimes that involve juveniles; the NIBRS reports that “The proportion of all pornography incidents with child/juvenile involvement increased from 15 percent in 1997 to 26 percent in 2000.” [29] Furthermore, they point out that “the related apparent increase in pornography crime involving children may indicate more offenses, greater awareness, or better recordkeeping.” [30]. NIBRS is maintained by the FBI but also includes local, federal, and state information, and so would seem to be a better record of child pornography offenses than FBI data alone.

The next claim, that “one in five” children has been approached online for sex, is quite misleading. Radford writes:

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 ... that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences. 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 three percent (Radford, 2006b).

Additionally, the “one in five” statistic does not hold up in empirical studies. Larry Rosen, a professor at California State Dominguez Hills, found that quantitatively, the risk to teens online from sexual predators is extremely low. Working from two studies, one which surveyed 1200 L.A.–area teens and another which interviewed more than 250 pairs of parents and teens, Rosen found that although MySpace has some negative aspects, sexual predators are not one of them. Only seven to nine percent of teens have been approached sexually on MySpace, and the most common response was to delete the message or ignore the sender. He also found that parents were very concerned about sexual predators online and thought media coverage was accurate, while teens generally did not think sexual solicitation online was a significant problem and found media coverage to be inaccurate (Rosen, 2006).

Similarly, Hindujal and Patchin (2008) empirically analyzed the amount of personal information provided on MySpace by teenagers. They found that only “8.8 percent [of teens] revealed their full name, 57 percent included a picture, 27.8 percent listed their school, and 0.3 percent provided their telephone number.” [31] Furthermore, a full 40 percent of profiles analyzed were set to private. They concluded that the majority of teenagers are using MySpace “responsibly,” which decries the panic over privacy and revealing personal information to potential predators. The authors do point out that the private profiles could differ markedly from public profiles, which can be problematic considering that most child abuse is committed by people known to the victim (who could presumably view the private profiles). Rather than banning the sites, the authors recommend that parents create profiles on MySpace and discuss the site with their children in order to establish an understanding of new media literacy (Hindujal and Patchin, 2008).

The final claim, that MySpace has removed 200,000 profiles, seems on face to be true. However, there is no information about why these profiles were removed. Since MySpace removes profiles for many reasons including copyright, third–party software use, spamming, multiple profiles, pretending to be a celebrity or a name brand, images of alcohol or drugs and so forth, it seems unlikely that all 200,000 profiles were deleted because they belonged to convicted online predators. More likely, this is an aggregate number that includes profiles deleted by MySpace for all reasons.

Thus, I conclude that the furor over MySpace is disproportionate to the amount of harm produced by the site. Indeed, the furor over online predators seems also to be disproportionate. Rather than focusing on nebulous “predators,” it seems that parents, teachers, and social workers should emphasize identifying and preventing abuse in specific, local community settings. This fits Goode and Ben–Yehuda’s model of moral panics.

The final characteristic is “volatility.” It is clear that the “online predators” panic is recent. While it is too early to tell whether or not it will die down as quickly, we can look at two previous panics, ritual Satanic child abuse and cyberporn, for models. While both of those were quite significant during their respective heydays, they are now rarely talked about in mainstream discourse. While Satanic ritual abuse was completely discounted, there is more “cyberporn,” or adult content, online than ever, and there is no current legislation that regulates online pornography. To the contrary, it is protected First Amendment speech. Since online pornography still exists and there is little or no moral panic around it today, we can assume that a moral panic which focuses on a much more limited harm will also fade out. Therefore, I believe that the current worries about MySpace do constitute a moral panic.

In addition to the statistics previously discussed, the program “To Catch a Predator” should be mentioned due to its immensely influential status. D. McCollum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, critically examines the series. While NBC suggests that the show provides a public service, McCollum argues that it actually fuels hysteria and spreads misinformation. He points out that the group “Perverted Justice,” who set up the sting operations, is deeply involved with the production of the show and is, in fact, paid a “consulting fee” by the producers. This group fits the model of the special interest group with a vested interest in continuing a moral panic (McCollum, 2007).

A similar article in the Skeptical Inquirer by B. Radford analyzes statistical claims that online predators are a significant problem and concludes that the studies used to “prove” the prevalence of online sexual solicitation actually show that sexual solicitation mostly exists between teenagers rather than adult predators. Moreover, when teenagers are approached sexually online, they usually know how to handle the problem; not a single study has found an instance in which sexual solicitation led to sexual conduct (naturally, studies that rely on self–reporting for disclosure will undercount behaviors considered socially deviant, but the large numbers bandied about by popular media are simply not supported by empirical evidence).

Radford looks at numbers cited by programs like “To Catch a Predator” and finds that they are mis–cited, extrapolated, or simply made up. He analyzes current legislation prompted by moral panics around “sex offenders” and online solicitation as ineffective and misguided. He blames the panic squarely on media sensationalism (Radford, 2006a; Radford, 2006b).




The Deleting Online Predators Act is not a remedy for any of the concerns discussed in this paper and should not be considered a viable legal solution. First, while online predators do not represent an epidemic or socially significant problem, child pornography and child abuse are important social issues that require attention. However, they are not caused by minors using MySpace, and preventing children from using social networking sites will do nothing to end these problems.

Second, the media should attend to their social responsibility when covering technology. While new discoveries almost always have both benefits and disadvantages, breathless negative coverage of technology frightens parents, prevents teenagers from learning responsible use, and fuels panics, resulting in misguided or unconstitutional legislation.

Third, teenagers should be encouraged in their use of technology. Technological skills are advantageous both in terms of social capital and job prospects, and we should promote technological knowledge among young people rather than discouraging it. Finally, parents should work with their teens to teach responsible Internet surfing habits. Prohibiting teens from using MySpace will not prevent them from using the site, and instead will dissuade them from talking about any problems that occur. Taking a nuanced, informed, and gradual approach to the social integration of new technologies will do more to lessen harm and improve responsible user practice than a panicked, emotional response. DOPA, unfortunately, is an example of the latter. End of article


About the author

Alice Marwick is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, where she studies status hierarchies in social media, the political economy of Web 2.0, Internet celebrity and feminist technology theory. Her erratically updated blog is at



An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Doctoral Colloquium and poster session of the iConference (Los Angeles, Calif., 28–29 March 2008); I thank participants for their useful feedback and suggestions. Dr. Helen Nissenbaum (Department of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University) and Dr. Siva Vaidhyanathan (Department of Media Studies, University of Virginia) provided valuable feedback on earlier versions of this paper.



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2. Exon, 1995, p. S9021.

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4. Tauzin, 1998, p. H9906.

5. Oxley, 1998, p. H9907.

6. Leahy, 1999, p. S12794.

7. Springhall, 1998, p. 7.

8. Ibid.

9. Best, 1990, p. 3.

10. Goode and Ben–Yehuda, 1994, p. 11.

11. Hunt, 1997, p. 631.

12. Hunt, 1997, p. 637.

13. Drotner, 1999, p. 596.

14. Drotner, 1999, p. 614.

15. Nussbaum, 2007, p. 27.

16. Nussbaum, 2007, p. 103.

17. Statistics provided by Web sites are notoriously unreliable as the site has an obvious motive in claiming high numbers.

18. Fitzpatrick, 2006a, p. H5884.

19. Nissenbaum, 2004, p. 101.

20. Goode and Yahuda, 1994, p. 33.

21. Ibid.

22. Goode and Yahuda, 1994, p. 34.

23. Victor, 1998, pp. 542–544.

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29. Finkelhor and Ormrod, 2004, p. 4.

30. Finkelhor and Ormrod, 2004, p. 1.

31. Hindujal and Patchin, 2008, p. 125.



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Editorial history

Paper received 23 March 2008; accepted 2 May 2008.

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To catch a predator? The MySpace moral panic
by Alice E. Marwick
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 6 - 2 June 2008