November 29, 2006

Teens, IM and Mark Foley

Now that the election is long past and the Mark Foley scandal is perhaps a slightly less inflammatory subject, we can address some of the inquiries that we’ve gotten about young people and instant messaging. For those who don’t know the details, former Rep. Mark Foley used instant messaging to engage teenaged male congressional pages in sexually explicit dialogue.

Instant messaging is perhaps the perfect way to contact teens – nearly three-quarters of online teens use the application, and for many teens it is the locus of their communication with friends. Rep. Foley approached teens on their turf, using a medium with which they were extremely comfortable. In fact, it may have been the savvy of the teens he spoke with that contributed to his undoing, as many of the teens knew, which perhaps Rep. Foley did not, that instant messaging conversations can be easily saved (and on many programs are now automatically retained). Some of the young men with whom he conversed saved the conversations, and eventually shared them with the media and law enforcement.

In light of the Foley revelations, many parents are concerned about how to keep their teens safe while using instant messaging. IM users can block people with whom they do not wish to speak, or set their programs to only respond to messages from those on a pre-approved buddy list. Parents can install and use monitoring software (a privacy-invasive tool) to capture IM conversations. However, this is good time to point out that Mark Foley was a known and trusted individual to these teens and their families. He had had legitimate prior contact with the teens, and thus would have not been blocked, at least initially, from contacting the young men. Indeed, for all of our real concerns about strangers contacting our children and harming them, the sad truth is that vast majority of sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by someone known to the victim – a family member, friend, teacher, coach, clergy, or neighbor.(1) Or in this case, a member of Congress.

(1) Douglas, Emily & Finkelhor, David (2006) Childhood Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet, Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire. http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/factsheet/pdf/CSA-FS20.pdf pg 7. Retrieved 11/9/06.