Is KidsPost's Birthdays Feature an Opening for Predatory Pedophiles?

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Once a week, the KidsPost page carries a dozen or more photos of area children with their names, birthdays and hometowns. To the youngsters and their parents, it's exciting to be featured in a newspaper read by friends, relatives and hundreds of thousands of others.

But to some, it's worrisome. By providing even this minimal personal information, they argue, The Post is putting the kids at risk.

"There is no shortage of predatory pedophiles who troll obsessively, online and off, for potential child victims," Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children, recently wrote to The Post. "Giving them a virtual database of information on local children -- including photographs, names, locations and dates of birth -- is a very unsafe practice."

Weeks doesn't worry that predators will snatch kids off the street. Rather, he said, the information allows them to search online for those who are active on social networks such as Facebook or MySpace.

The KidsPost information can be "pieced together by these predators" and they can "make contact with the child online and have a frame of reference to start talking," he said in an interview. It's "enticement" that can eventually lead to personal contact.

KidsPost editor Tracy Grant hears these concerns from readers "about three or four times a year." They are "sadly naive," she said.

"Predators who would use the KidsPost birthdays in order to act on their urges would be the Keystone Kops of pedophiles," said Grant, the mother of 13-year-old twins. "I don't mean to make light of it. But there are simply so many more sophisticated ways" predators would target children.

Besides, she said, only parents can submit the photos, which appear in print and on The Post's Web site. "Parents who feel this is irresponsible would simply opt out. No one is forcing them."

"I flinch when I hear someone say, 'The parents are okay with it,' " said Weeks, adding that they are "clueless" about the dangers their children are exposed to on social networks. Parents have "ultimate responsibility" for a child's welfare, he said, but "institutions like The Post who take it upon themselves to engage kids or families also have a responsibility."

Few would disagree that sexual predation against minors is a serious problem. In the past decade, there have been nearly 740,000 reports of child sexual exploitation to the CyberTipline, run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in partnership with the FBI and other agencies. Early this year, MySpace said it banned 90,000 registered sex offenders from its site.

But child sexual exploitation statistics can include everything from molestation by family members to distribution of child pornography. Many experts believe online enticement of minors is rare.

The risk that a child will be sexually exploited through social networking is "less than negligible," said Larry Magid, a journalist and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, which offers tips to young people on responsible online behavior.

Stephen Balkam, head of the Family Online Safety Institute, agreed: "In terms of using pictures of kids [from] the newspaper, we have seen no evidence that that has been used by predators to go after kids."

"The vast majority of kids are making wise choices when they're online," said Balkam, whose nonprofit group includes tech giants like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo. "In the rare instance when they get a creepy kind of approach, they just delete it."

Grant said she has never received a complaint that KidsPost birthday photos resulted in a child being contacted by a would-be predator.

That may be so, said Weeks, "but you don't wait until it happens."

"I have a hard time imagining any child sex crimes investigator who would not shudder at publishing this combination of personal information," he said.

Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, doesn't believe the KidsPost information poses major risks for children who are featured.

"But ultimately," he said, "it is a parent's decision."

Grant agreed. "As parents," she said, "we make decisions all the time about what are acceptable risks."

That's the key. Parents must decide when to allow their kid to walk unaccompanied to school or when they can hang out alone with friends at a mall. They play the odds. And it's a pretty good bet that their child won't be sexually exploited because a birthday was celebrated in KidsPost.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog .


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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