Harvard Study Finds Significant Limits in the Ability of Current Technology Used by Social Networking Sites to Reduce Online Risks to Minors

In a report released on January 14, 2009, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force concluded that the technologies currently being used by digital media companies to address youth safety are “helpful in mitigating some risks to minors online, but none is fail-safe.” The study, which was conducted at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University for the 52 State Attorneys General, reviewed technologies such as age verification and identity authentication, filtering and auditing, text analysis and biometrics. (fn1) However, it found that these technologies do not even address the most common online threats faced by minors — harassment and bullying. Moreover, while the these technologies can be of use against other threats, such as preventing minor access to adult content, each can be circumvented.

The Task Force report identified three major categories of threats faced by minors online: (1) sexual solicitation, (2) online harassment and cyber-bullying, and (3) exposure to problematic content. Of these, the Task Force found that bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face online. Bullying and harassment include acts designed to embarrass, humiliate or threaten a minor.

While sexual solicitation is a risk, the study found that “the image presented by the media of an older male deceiving and preying on a young child does not paint an accurate picture of the nature of the majority of sexual solicitations.” Rather, most solicitation is between minors, and even in most off-line encounters arranged through the Internet, the minor knows that he is being solicited by an adult. While there is a risk of exposure to unwanted harmful material, “those most likely to be exposed are those seeking it out, such as older male minors.”