Fifteen-year-old South Australian Carly Ryan was murdered in 2007. The 50-year-old man found guilty of her murder had used fabricated online identities to attempt to seduce the girl and, when she ultimately rejected his advances, he used another identity to lure her to a beach-side town where he bashed and drowned her.
Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon now intends to introduce a private member’s bill which would make it an offence for an adult to misrepresent their age online for the purpose of meeting minors. Carly’s mother, who plans to establish a foundation to promote awareness of the risks children face online, has said she supports the bill.
The story of Carly Ryan is terrible. Just hearing the story triggers a shiver of disgust and horror and those who are parents themselves may well be worrying about the risks posed to their own children by shadowy online stalkers. Politicians are human too and react the same way. Indeed Nick Xenophon’s reaction follows a common pattern that has emerged around the world in recent decades.
The pattern starts with a terrible crime committed against a child. This is followed by extensive and sometimes lurid media coverage. A politician will then call for new laws to “prevent this happening to others”. It would be a brave politician who would argue against such a law and thereby risk appearing insensitive to the plight of the victim and the grief of their distraught family. So they do not oppose it and new laws are passed. The pattern is clearest in the United States. The archetypal example is Megan’s Law. In 1994 seven-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a repeat sexual offender. Her name has since been attached to laws introduced across the country requiring a public register of sex offenders. Other examples fitting the pattern include Jessica’s Law in Florida which imposes a minimum 25-year sentence on sex offenders. Nick Xenophon’s “Carly’s Law” could well be another in this sequence.
But, how effective are laws like this in curbing the criminal behaviour they are targeting? In 2008, the US Department of Justice funded a study of the efficacy of Megan’s Law. The authors found that “Megan’s Law showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses”. Furthermore, it observed that the cost of implementing the registers had continued to rise. Their executive summary concluded phlegmatically:
Given the lack of demonstrated effect of Megan’s Law on sexual offenses, the growing costs may not be justifiable.
One of the problems with laws of this kind is that the offences that give rise to them are in fact extremely rare. The level of media attention they receive distorts accurate perceptions of the risks involved. According to the victims of crime data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the incidence of kidnapping or abduction of children in 2008 was 8 in 100,000. Of course, included in this figure are abductions by people who are known to the victim (varying by State from 30-50%), including estranged family members and not all would involve sexual assault. Overall rates of sexual assault are higher (the Bureau does not provide a breakdown by victims’ age group at a national level), but an even higher proportion of perpetrators of sexual assault are known to the victim.
Now some would dispute the relevance of figures such as these. After all, if legislation is able to save even one child, isn’t that worth it? The problem with this reasoning is that our society has finite resources. While the politicians who pass these laws can simply move on to the next issue, the public sector is saddled with the cost of implementing it. The laws must be policed if they are to serve any purpose at all and those in breach of the laws must be tried. But this means that police and court time, which is already stretched, must be diverted to these new laws. While one child may be saved from a “stranger danger”, it could well be that others would suffer at the hands of drunk drivers missed by the police, or perhaps abusive family members not restrained by the courts. We would never know, but certainly laws don’t come for free any more than lunches.
In recent years, the pattern has shifted from the broader issue of sexual assault of children to online “predators”, to use the term that has become so common in media reports. The image conjured up is that of the paedophilic older man masquerading as a teenager; in other words, precisely the target of Nick Xenophon’s new bill.
At first glance, there are statistics that suggest that the internet may well be rife with such predators. The US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has conducted surveys which indicate that one in seven children in the United States between the ages of 10 and 17 who use the internet have received a sexual solicitation online. However, digging deeper into the data suggests that the stereotypical image of the predator is not particularly accurate. In 2008, University of New Hampshire researchers published an overview of the research into online sexual victimization, Online “Predators” and their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention and Treatment. They conclude that most of these advances are in fact made by other youths, which in itself suggests that more attention could be given to problems of cyber-bullying. Even when the solicitation is made by an adult, they observe that:
In the great majority of cases, victims are aware they are conversing online with adults. In the N-JOV Study, only 5% of offenders pretended to be teens when they met potential victims online.
A better understanding of what is actually taking place would suggest focusing on the broader problem rather than on the lurid but exceptional examples such as Carly Ryan’s case. To this end, the paper concludes by arguing
While online molesters take advantage of developmentally normal adolescent interests in romance and sex, some youth may be particularly at risk. This group includes boys who are gay or questioning their sexual orientation; youth with histories of sexual or physical abuse; and those who frequent chatrooms, talk online to unknown people about sex, or engage in patterns of risky off- or online behavior. While there is little research about online child molesters, they appear to occupy a restricted range on the spectrum of the sex offender population and include few true pedophiles or violent or sadistic offenders. We need frank, accurate prevention programs for youth, thoughtful treatment for victims, and continued research.
I suspect that none of these recommendations will be taken up in Senator Xenophon’s bill.
Last year, The Economist argued the case for reforming sex laws in America and elsewhere due in large part to cruel unintended consequences arising from the well-meaning legislation such as Megan’s law. Senator Xenophon has already anticipated some complexities associated with his new bill, noting that it will not apply to adults shaving a few years off their age while using online dating. However, the lesson of past attempts at legislation in this area is that the bills do little to reduce the crimes they are targeting and instead divert resources and cause problems. Better then not to pass a Carly’s law in the first place. It will not bring Carly back and it is very unlikely to do anyone else any good either. Time and resources of our legislators, police and judiciary is better spent elsewhere.