In danah boyd’s chapter “Are Sexual Predator Lurking Everywhere?” she discusses how many parents either restrict their children’s access to social networking sites or forbid the use of these sites all together due to the fear that “evil men are lurking behind every keyboard, ready to pounce on [their children]” (102). This fear, also known as “stranger danger” began in the 1980s, before the Internet became a fixture in everyday life, and was focused primarily on public spaces as places teen could come into contact with “harmful strangers.” With the introduction of computers and the Internet into people’s home, many parents feared the introduction of a public space that did not have physical boundaries. As boyd mentions, this parental fear of predatory strangers was greatly heightened by the show To Catch A Predator, as well as in the mainstream media that greatly focused on stories of suspected kidnappings and sexual predation of teens by people they met online.
When I was in middle school, I distinctly remember watching To Catch A Predator and feeling intense fear of being kidnapped and raped by someone who would find me online. This fear of stranger danger was made even worse by my mother who constantly ran over to my computer every time she heard me typing to see if I was talking to someone online, even though most of the time I was trying to search for something via Google. I definitely identified with Sabrina when I was in middle school; the girl boyd interviewed who lived in a planned community. Sabrina “was cautious and limited her online activities, [but] she was terrified that something would go wrong” (109). I decided to re-watch some clips of To Catch A Predator, as I haven’t seen the show since 2007, and was shocked by how problematic it now seems to me as an adult, especially considering how this show is emblematic of the moral panic surrounding the Internet at the time of my youth.
Not only was that show ethically questionable, as the tactics they used to catch the “predators” were extremely problematic, but also ignored the fact that the Internet is not increasing the number of cases of sexual predation. According to The Shame Game, by Douglas McCollam and also mentioned by boyd:
Dateline has argued that “Predator” serves a genuine public good, but it could be argued that, in fact, Dateline is doing the public a disservice. When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave a speech about a major initiative to combat the “growing problem” of Internet predators, he cited a statistic that 50,000 such would-be pedophiles were prowling the Net at any given moment and attributed it to Dateline. Jason McLure, a reporter at Legal Times in Washington, D.C., (where I was formerly an editor), 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, but that the problem seems to be getting worse, a sentiment echoed by lawmakers in Congress.
I can say this show personally affected my life and helped perpetuate the culture of fear that seems to becoming increasingly popular. Instead of nuanced approaches to understanding new media and its relationships with teens, mainstream media prefers to scare everyone and ignore real and more pressing problems.