I’ve long felt that public fears (mostly among folks who aren’t particularly computer-literate) about internet sex predators were mostly press-fueled frenzy — the normal sensationalism that we get served with any new technology, where the press tries to “sell papers” (or whatever it is they are selling these days) by taking a tiny tiny handful of crimes that involve the new technology and turning that tiny handful into an endless parade of breathless handwringing and fear-mongering. All of which is eagerly devoured by the sort of casual Luddites who don’t much like the new technology and sort of wish it didn’t exist because then they wouldn’t have to deal with.

Well, it turns out I was right. Research by sociologists at the Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire in Durham has debunked several widely-believed myths:

Myth: Internet predators are driving up child sex crime rates.

Reality: Sex assaults on teens fell 52 percent from 1993 to 2005, according to the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, the best measure of U.S. crime trends. “The Internet may not be as risky as a lot of other things that parents do without concern, such as driving kids to the mall and leaving them there for two hours,” Wolak said.

Myth: Internet predators are pedophiles.

Reality: Internet predators don’t hit on the prepubescent children whom pedophiles target. They target adolescents, who have more access to computers, more privacy and more interest in sex and romance, Wolak’s team determined from interviews with investigators.

Myth: Internet predators represent a new dimension of child sexual abuse.

Reality: The means of communication is new, according to Wolak, but most Internet-linked offenses are essentially statutory rape: nonforcible sex crimes against minors too young to consent to sexual relationships with adults.

Myth: Internet predators trick or abduct their victims.

Reality: Most victims meet online offenders face-to-face and go to those meetings expecting to engage in sex. Nearly three-quarters have sex with partners they met on the Internet more than once.

Myth: Internet predators meet their victims by posing online as other teens.

Reality: Only 5 percent of predators did that, according to the survey of investigators.

Myth: Online interactions with strangers are risky.

Reality: Many teens interact online all the time with people they don’t know. What’s risky, according to Wolak, is giving out names, phone numbers and pictures to strangers and talking online with them about sex.

Myth: Internet predators go after any child.

Reality: Usually their targets are adolescent girls or adolescent boys of uncertain sexual orientation, according to Wolak. Youths with histories of sexual abuse, sexual orientation concerns and patterns of off- and online risk-taking are especially at risk.

Thanks to Bruce Schneier for the link.