Dateline NBC's" "To Catch a Predator" series is can't-take-your-eyes-off-it television. The format is familiar by now: lured by the promise of sexual contact with a minor discovered in an Internet chat room, one creepy adult after another shows up at a house where parents are supposedly away. But instead of hooking up with a pliant teenager, the predators encounter 6-foot-3 "Dateline" correspondent Chris Hansen, who verbally reduces them to squirming grubs before dispatching them into the hands of collaborating cops. The thrill of seeing potential child molesters punk'd has drawn high ratings, and NBC has so far packaged five such investigations into twice as many shows. As Hansen explained to me recently, "Dateline" is performing a service: letting people know that really bad guys are out there.
But there's a downside to the "Dateline" series. Casual viewers may wind up equating the Internet itself with evil--and let fear affect their responses to this crucial medium. Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup.com--a Web site that facilitates offline meetings of people who share interests like knitting, politics and Chihuahuas--has seen the effects when he's run focus groups of potential customers. "There are thousands of people a day who do not sign up to our service solely because of 'Dateline NBC'," he says.
How big is the threat of predators online? In the first two "Dateline" shows, Hansen reported someone's estimate that at any given moment, 50,000 potential child molesters were prowling the Internet. No hard statistics backed this up, and when critics questioned the figure, "Dateline" stopped using it. The most reliable metric is a 2001 Justice Department survey of regular Internet users ages 10 to 17. Among those surveyed, almost one in five reported an approach. But only 5 percent total had received a "distressing sexual solicitation," and about half of those come-ons were from other juveniles. No respondent reported physical contact with any offenders. (In the vast majority of sex crimes involving minors, the abuse is from someone known to the child, often a parent or guardian.)
House calls from predators don't happen spontaneously when your kid does homework on Google or hangs out solely with buddies on MySpace.com. (After some alleged cases in which teenagers unwisely got together with adults they met on the service, MySpace introduced new protections last week, making it tougher for strangers to contact minors.) NBC does its investigations with a watchdog group that supplies decoys who pose as minors hanging out in unmoderated, all-access, regional chat rooms and gay chat rooms on AOL and Yahoo--hot spots for hookups. The predators make the first approach. After explicitly sexual conversation, decoys direct the would-be abusers to the camera-ready houses. Then it's showtime.
"No one's arguing that the Internet is evil," Hansen says. "But talking about strangers is another conversation you have to have with your kids." No argument there, but by showing hour after hour of those creepy predators, it's easy to lose one's sense of proportion. In the name of protecting children, Congress has passed laws that could limit speech for all Web sites (so far the courts have struck down those laws). More recently, the government has suggested that to police the Web it might be necessary to require Internet service providers to store data about the online peregrinations of their customers, potentially compromising everyone's privacy. In a speech given in April, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales emphasized the urgency of the matter. "At any given time," he said, "50,000 predators are on the Internet prowling for children." He also cited his source for the figure: "Dateline NBC."