The “Facts” about Internet Sexual Abuse and Schools

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

A teacher is turned down when he wants to have students do podcasts as part of his curriculum. The Director of Technology claims it’s because the teacher can’t guarantee the safety of the students.

A very technology saavy and creative art teacher wants to provide an innovative project where kids connect to other kids and artists outside her classroom through blogs, e-mail, and IM. She is turned down without an explanation. It’s particularly frustrating because over the years she has advanced several ideas for projects that employ technology and each of them has been turned down.

Staff members and students are complaining that the filtering systems in their school is too restrictive and needs to be adjusted.

A few weeks ago, my school began to block Wikipedia. When I asked why, I was told that a student searched how to make pipe bombs. When I asked what they did to him, I was told nothing because they don’t know who did it. [I am back in my old school district as of Sept. and was shocked to find out that we don’t have a student sign-on that allows us to track the student traffic.] When I mentioned that the majority of students use it properly I was told by the school librarian that the information in Wikipedia was not accurate. I shared the article you pointed out during the workshop and she said it meant nothing because she actually found an author misspelled on the site. Today I was told by a superior that she read an article about how bad Wikipedia is. HELP ME FIGHT THEM. I am really getting frustrated. Today a teacher proposed a wonderful class that would allow movie making a student website building. Again my superior said, no because she does not want their content tied to our school site. “Help me fight them!”
From Will Richardson’s post “dispatches from the front lines”

These are recurring themes that are common everywhere I go. The restrictive nature of the decision making is frustrating a lot of passionate ed tech leaders, so let’s spend some time looking at the problem and developing an approach that has some chance of changing the outcomes.

Let’s be clear, this has to be a generalized conversation. It will not be accurate in every situation.

First, what are the key factors that are going into decisions?

1. Student safety – fear of having an incident where a student is exposed to an online predator. Also in this genre, is the fear of kids within the school harassing each other and defacing the system with obscenity. These fears also extend to students gaining access to materials that are pornographic or inappropriate, such as bomb making.

2. Security – fear of opening the system to a process or an application that might allow unauthorized access to the network, as well as to the sensitive data that often resides there.

3. Overwhelm – unwillingness by a decision maker to take on more work because they are barely able to keep their heads above water with the status quo.

Obviously, there are other factors that go into the decision to allow a particular technology into the schools; but we’ll deal with only these three for now.

The most difficult explanation for restricting many online technologies is the effort to keep students safe. This rationale is complicated and must be approached carefully. It is important that we not dismiss the concerns that many decision makers have for safety. Here are some statistics that raise alarm bells for educational decision makers:

One in -five children have been solicited sexually while on the Internet. ( January 2002).

Four (4) percent of all youth Internet users in 2005 said online solicitors asked them for nude or sexually explicit photographs of themselves Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later. 2006. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Crimes Against Children Research Center, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. December 4, 2006

More than three-quarters of the unwanted exposures (79%) happened at home. Nine (9) percent happened at school, 5% happened at friends’ homes, and 5% happened in other places including libraries (Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later. 2006. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Crimes Against Children Research Center, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. December 4, 2006

Maintaining the safety of the children in their charge is a major part of the social bargain between parents and schools. Parents who drop off their most treasured possessions at the school’s doorstep, expect them to be returned safely, and more knowledgeable than when they left them.

Once we acknowledge the concern for safety, does that end the conversation? Not by a long shot. It is our job to put the concern into context, provide a balanced perspective on the issue, and to educate decision makers as to the “facts”.

A good place to start is to look at the steadily decreasing Child Sexual Abuse trends:


All forms of child abuse, not just sexual abuse are undergoing a dramatic decline. Of course, you’d never know this from the hype the media is giving the cases of Internet related sexual abuse that they can trace back to MySpace or Facebook.

The picture painted by the media gives the impression that child abuse and sexual abuse are increasing and that our children are under siege from online predators and pedophiles using the Internet to snare their victims. The following chart puts some perspective on the threat from strangers, Internet-based, or not.


The key statistic that is so often overlooked and rarely discussed is that 95% of Child Abuse and Sexual Abuse is perpetrated by family members. 79% of perpetrators are parents. Other relatives accounted for 7% and unmarried partners of parents and “other” accounted for 4% and 5% of abuse. If we want to decrease child abuse our efforts would be far more effective if we focused our attention on the family rather than the few sensationalized Internet-based incidents.

A great place for schools to put their efforts if they want to reduce the incidence of child and sexual abuse is in training their staffs to identify the warning signs. Although educators report more abuse than any other sector of society, incidents continue to be severely under-reported.


Educational Personnel make the highest number of child abuse referrals.


The number of referrals and investigations is far lower than victimization rates.

It important to remember that ninety-five (95%) of all abuse is perpetrated by a family member or someone known to the victim. Of the five percent (5%) of abuse perpetrated by others, the Internet is involved in only a small percentage. I was unable to find any definitive statistics on the prevalence of these types of cases.

It is also important to point out that when Internet related abuse cases have been reported, 79% occurred at home, 9% happened at school, 5% happened at friend’s homes, and 5% happened at other places, including the library. When we slice the “less than five percent pie” into these smaller pieces, the risk gets much, much smaller.

Our first step as leaders is always to listen carefully to the concerns and issues of those we wish to lead, especially if they are decision makers and leaders themselves. We must take their concerns and fears seriously and not dismiss them as irrelevant.

Our second step is to put the risk into perspective.

All charts, reports, and other documents used in this post, as well as other links to key sites on the topic are available at the edtechjourneys wiki.

In future posts, I’ll examine some practical steps you can take to influence the decision making process in your district.



24 thoughts on “The “Facts” about Internet Sexual Abuse and Schools

  1. Pingback: EdBloggerNews
  2. That’s the post I’ve been meaning to write for some time. Great job!

    I always questioned the “One in -five children have been solicited sexually while on the Internet” statistic. I don’t know what their definition of sexual solicitation is. I always wondered if they were including solicitation from fellow children etc. I’d also like to see the statistics on children being sexually solicited in every day life or in school. The vagueness of the word “children” also makes me wonder. I’ve never seen the age range of these children defined.

    I’m currently working with a large group in our district to create our base internet safety guidelines (VA has state Internet safety guidelines already). We are working hard to integrate it with the curriculum rather than treating the Internet like a different world rather than an extension of what we do in schools every day. I think that’s where education tends to go wrong.

  3. I find the juxtoposition of the previous posting and this posting to be quite interesting!

    In 1951, Isaac Asimov entertained the idea that technology could be an isolating influence if it changed schooling to be something that happens at home and not in places where face to face social interactions happen. Kids would miss the social interactions and find technology a bore etc.

    Now we are aware that the Internet (technology) is a place where social interaction is NOT a bore, but a mesmerizing “draw” for our kids.

    But it is a very different social place, with different rules (or NO rules).

    We think nothing of putting information about our children into our school and local newspapers, (with some caution perhaps). But do we put the same information on our web pages?
    Probably not unless the teacher unwittingly posts the class newspaper without editing out personal information. (Whoops)

    There is something different about the social interactions possible online than face to face.
    There is, especially, the factor of one-to-many. A “predator” can reach all of the children in a school setting with ease. So what if there is only ONE real predator, from Outer Pluto, who only reaches ONE of our children. What statistics measure that contact? What teacher wants to allow that?

    There is something different about spamming activity which can reach children as easily as adults. How many children are receiving Viagra ads I wonder? Or worse? At home? At school?

    Perhaps “…our children are under siege from online predators and pedophiles using the Internet to snare their victims.” could be true?

    I think the question of safety, isn’t driven by the amount of past sexual abuse but about the possibilities for future, increasing abuse that could be fostered by or initiated by uncontrolled one-to-many contacts. Those contacts can be through email, blog postings, use of tagging etc. The potential for an increase in “stranger” or “other” abuse is strong.

    Are the media picking up on this because they, too, are spamming our children to buy, read, be influenced by, etc, the “learning” they offer?
    Perhaps they understand the problem too well?

    It IS a new world which presents itself to our children, and educators do still act “in loco parentis”. We are on shifting ground, and I suspect our decision making and advising will need constant examination.

    This is a good place to do that!

  4. Dan;
    A lot of what you touch on in your reply is covered in my next post. You are asking the right questions. If you are the parent of a child who is the sexual abuse victim, all the statistics in the world, mean nothing. However, as policy makers, we look at the level of risk we think is reasonable. If we went with the zero tolerence – not even one mishap – approach; it would curtail many things that schools take for granted…field trips (strangers), sports (injuries), playgrounds (injuries, bullying)…the list can get pretty long.

  5. Excellent analysis about Internet Safety and students. So many of the people making the decisions to “block” websites are made by people who don’t understand the value of many of these sites or don’t want to take the time to learn more about them. Seems like one bad experience by one person or one negative article in the local newspaper shuts down all of the possibilities for use in education. Of course, this gets back to having the right kind of access to actually learn and use what is on the web. You are absolutely correct – ongoing training and education are the key. In January, I will propose to our district administrators that all teachers should be training students each year starting in fourth grade about the appropriate uses of the Internet. When teachers train students in the uses of the Internet, then they will better understand the overall uses of the Internet, including the risks.

  6. I have recomended you to all my friends at school. after they read this they all thanked me loads fof telling them about this site as it has helped them loads.

  7. The statistics on this webpage helped me to develop my argument about schools needing to take necessary precautions to protect students in schools. However, it also helped me to make a counter-argument. You provided several different interesting prospectives for me to consider while researching how schools should filter and block certain types of websites. This blog really helped expand my knowledge on the subject!

  8. Terrific stuff – a very clear response to the over reactions of communities and schools to students going online with blogs and other meaningful web-based tools. I can say that one of the biggest obstacles to overcome is, sadly, law enforcement itself. In several school districts near me, they have had speakers, always police officers, do a special presentation to parents on Internet safety.

    Having attended these and heard what they suggest, I assure you they take an extremely polarized position regarding the dangers posed to children. Often they tell a story (as if it is true) of how a child leaves a trail of information allowing herself to be abducted (see Angela’s Experience at for an example of this story).

    Now I am not 100% positive of this, but it seems extremely unlikely that, by doing a school related projected, with teacher oversight, using tools that are secure and protected, this would ever happen. In fact, I’m pretty sure it never has happened.

    The problem of course is that no school administrator wants to be the first to have it happen (or appear to have happened), nor do they want to be sued by over-protective parents. But until someone provides a counter to what even law enforcement is saying about the use of online tools, I don’t see much chance of changing the status quo.

  9. Doug,
    I was asked to be the “devil’s advocate” at one of these Internet Safety sessions held with the Assistant DA. I did the research you see here for the presentation and afterwards decided to share it with a larger audience. It has since been published in a recent book of essays on the topic.

    I think it’s possible to open up certain Web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis without too much risk.

    On the other hand, content filtering is probably justified for pornography which has embedded itself in the very fabric of the Internet.

    Social networks are getting safer, the word is out about keeping personal info private…I think these will be more acceptable (providing we have a curriculum and learning rationale for why we believe they are useful in our classrooms)

    I think it’s probably wise to take each of these items and products (YouTube, Delicious, Flickr, etc) separately. We tend to lump them together.


  10. these graphs are horrible! obviously with need-to-know information, but i cannot stand to look at them any longer. is all of this true? my older sister was sexually abused 3 times and she has not said anything to anyone. i only recently found out, but now looking at these charts, i am afraid that there are other girls and boys like her. i could be wrong, but just imagine if so many kids are afraid of their perpatrators and nobody wants to come out and prosecute them-due to their fear!

  11. Cheyanne,
    I’m sorry to hear about your sister. Your point about ‘fear’ holding back victims from coming forward to prosecute their abusers is well taken. There is also an element of ‘shame’. It’s best to have a lot of compassion for the victims.

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