First, what the 1-in-5 number actually means. It originated with a study done in 2000 by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, which surveyed 1,501 Internet-using youth age 10 through 17. The actual relevant findings of the study were as follows:
The 1 in 5 figure was the number that had received at least one instance of unwanted sex talk (including from other teenagers), or sex talk from an adult (whether wanted or not), in the past year.
The proportion of respondents who received a sexual flirtation from an adult, followed by a request to talk on the phone or meet in person, was about 1%.
The number of survey respondents who actually befriended an adult online and then met the adult in person for sexual purposes, was zero.
The actual proportion of respondents who reported that someone made sexual overtures and asked to talk on the phone or meet in person -- what the study called an "aggressive sexual solicitation" -- was 3%, and 34% of those requests were known to have been made by adults. And even this overestimates the proportion of minors who were truly "sexually solicited", because all it means is that an adult started out by talking to them sexually, and then made some request for offline contact, which could have merely been asking for a phone number. So the scenario that comes to mind when hearing that "1 in 5 children is sexually solicited online" -- of being approached sexually by an adult and asked for an in-person meeting -- had actually happened to no more than 1% of respondents, and probably much fewer than that.
And this is just considering the percentage of youth who received solicitations, not taking into account how they responded. Out of 1,501 youth surveyed, none of them reported actually meeting an adult in person for anything that they described as sexual contact. Two teens in the study had "close friendships" with adults that the authors wrote "may have had sexual aspects". One 17-year-old boy had a relationship with a woman in her late twenties that he described as "romantic" but not sexual, and they never met in person. Another 16-year-old girl became close to a man in his thirties, and they met in a public place, but she described the relationship as non-sexual, and she declined to spend the night with him. (While these could still be considered "close calls", it's worth noting that even if the 16- and 17-year-olds had actually had a sexual relationship with their adult friends, that would have in fact been legal in many U.S. states, and in any case it's not what most people think of when they hear about "children" being "sexually solicited online".)
Of course all of this depends on the accuracy of the answers that the youth gave to the surveyors. But the "1 in 5" figure was based on the youths' stated responses as well. People who cite the study can't have their cake and eat it too, taking the "1 in 5" number as accurate but discounting the fact that none of the teens surveyed reported a sexual relationship with an adult they met online.
These were the data that were available in 2000, when the "1 in 5" number started being spread. The authors of the original study followed up with a 2005 report, "Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later", in which the corresponding statistics were:
1 in 7 respondents received unwanted sex talk or sex talk from an adult, at some point in the past year.
The proportion of respondents who received a sexual flirtation from an adult, followed by a request to communicate offline, was again about 1-2%. (4% of respondents reported a sexual flirtation plus a request to correspond offline. The new study reported that 39% of all sexual solicitations were made by adults, but did not say what proportion of "aggressive sexual solicitations" -- which included requests for offline contact -- were made by adults.)
Out of 1,501 respondents surveyed in 2005, two did report an in-person meeting that led to a sexual crime -- one was a 15-year-old girl who met a 30-year-old man in person and had consensual sex with him, and another was a 16-year-old girl who went to a party with an older male she met online who later tried to rape her. But even these incidents (which were both reported to law enforcement) do not mean that the Internet is a more dangerous environment for youth with regard to interaction with adults. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's own Web site links to a study -- also by one of the authors of the "Online Victimization" report -- which found that when all types of abuse are counted, 20% of females experience some type of sexual victimization before adulthood, compared to 2 out of 750 female survey respondents in the "Online Victimization" study who reported sexual abuse by someone they met online.
The NCMEC has
their Web site
to say that "one in seven youths (10 to 17 years) experience
a sexual solicitation or approach while online", although the banner ads
still say 1 in 5. But I
think the 1-in-7 versus 1-in-5 is hardly worth nit-picking, when the real
problem is that
the statement "1 in 5 children is sexually solicited online" is written in
a way that virtually
guarantees it will be mis-heard and
passed along as a statement involving "online predators" or "pedophiles".
"Authorities Say 1 in 5 Children Has Been Approached By Online Predators"
reads the sub-heading
story on ABC
"20% of children who use computer chat rooms have been approached over the
Internet by a pedophile" says an
sponsored by the Albemarle County government in Virginia.
"One in five kids in America are approached by online predators" says a
The NCMEC itself never says that 1 in 5 or 1 in 7 children is "approached by a pedophile", merely that they are "sexually solicited online". I still think this is false because that is not the proportion of minors who are literally solicited for sex, but suppose that you expanded "sexual solicitation" to include all sex talk, so that the statement was "technically true". That still misses the point, because the issue shouldn't be seen as a game where sides try to make their statements as alarmist as possible while still being "technically true", like the kid with his petition to ban "dihydrogen monoxide". If you say something that is virtually guaranteed to get passed along as a wrong and alarmist statement about "pedophiles", aren't you at least partly responsible?
Why, then, does the NCMEC do it? Their site does have a "Donate" link, but it's very low-key, and the site generally seems to steer first-time visitors towards actions that they can take with regard to their own children. So I'm not cynical enough to think the "1 in 5" statistic is a campaign to scare up donations; I think they really do believe they are doing good by getting people to believe that number and to take action based on it. The problem is that there is such a thing as too much worrying and too much overprotection. Sites like Facebook are often used to organize parties and events and send out venue changes, just because that's the most efficient way to do it, and if your parents ban you from getting on Facebook, you'll miss out on simple things like that. What good does that do for anybody? Critics of overprotection often say that overly sheltered kids may rebel later on and get themselves in worse trouble, and that's often true, but so what even if they don't? Your quality of life is still worse off if you're the only one in your peer group who can't get updates about your friends' parties. And your parents' quality of life will be worse if they're constantly wringing their hands thinking that there is a 1 in 5 chance their kid will be propositioned online by a pedophile.
So I would urge the NCMEC to reconsider what they're telling people. Regarding the "1 in 5" meme that's already out there, it's spread so far that it's probably too late for the NCMEC to put the genie back into the bottle. But any anti-censorship group participating in a debate about online safety should put the real statistics forward, and since many in the audience will have heard the "1 in 5" figure somewhere, take a minute to knock it down as well. You don't have to commit political suicide by calling out the NCMEC specifically for spreading the "1 in 5" number, but put the right numbers out there.
Unfortunately the subject of child safety is such that wrong information, from any source, is unlikely to be criticized if it's erring on the side of caution, but some memes die faster than others. Microsoft's resource page about "online predators" says that "if you find pornography on the family computer" -- not child porn, but regular pornography -- that could be a warning sign that "your child is the target of an online predator". I think that's a wildly irresponsible thing to be telling parents, but fortunately the meme does not seem to have spread beyond that one page, which probably not one parent in a thousand will ever actually read.