Since emerging from the primordial ooze, parents have wrung their evolving appendages over ways to shield their offspring from hungry predators, lurking maniacs and strangers from without.
Again and again, they've learned, the threat to their children lies uncomfortably closer to home: Lion fathers would sooner eat their unprotected young than hunt wilier quarry; children pictured on milk cartons were more likely to have been snatched from home by an embattled parent than by a stranger; day-care providers were less intent on molesting a child in their care than was, say, a live-in partner, Uncle Wilbur or a trusted family friend.
It was a lesson brought home again earlier this month, when parents learned that the roughly six in 10 adolescents who socialize on the Internet have relatively little to fear from the faceless pervert lurking in the anonymity of cyberspace.
In an authoritative report almost a year in the making, a Harvard University-led task force on Internet safety, ordered by the nation's attorneys general and meant to expose the full extent of the danger, found instead that kids trading gossip, photos and plans on social networking sites such as MySpace are relatively safe from adults cruising online for sex with minors.
The report, released Jan. 13, counters political calls to protective action with a generally upbeat look at the effectiveness of measures developed by Internet companies to protect kids from predatory strangers. And it douses parental fretting with research showing that few kids have been subject to such unwanted advances when socializing on sites aimed at the youth market.
Those findings come on the heels of several studies showing that online social networking appears to be a perfectly benign practice for the vast majority of kids, even for those most consumed by the pastime. After a steady diet of warnings that their children's growing Internet use is a likely cause of academic failure, attention disorders and obesity, a parent could be forgiven for welcoming the news with an audible sigh of relief.
Those parents might want to read to the report's end, however. The perpetrators of psychological wounds and the stalkers who would steal their kids' innocence are probably not strangers, the study reported; more likely, they are the spiteful, sulking or silly friends the kids hang out with. And their own offspring may play a significant role in the misbehavior too.
Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, "are the most frequent threats that minors face," the report says. And though kids concede that minors routinely proposition other minors for sex on these sites, such incidents "are understudied, underreported to law enforcement, and are not part of most conversations about online safety," it adds.
"It's an important message for parents," says Katherine C. Cowan, communications director for the National Assn. of School Psychologists and, with four kids ages 17 to 24, a "grizzled veteran" of parenting teens. "Sure, there are crazy sexual predators out there. But the most common problem is kids being mean to each other, and 13-year-old girls posting naked pictures of themselves."
The highly publicized suicide of a Missouri teenager after a campaign of cyber-bullying has helped solidify parents' perceptions that malicious adults, not their own children, are the Internet's main threat. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself after a neighborhood parent posed as a 16-year-old boy on MySpace, befriended and flattered Megan for six weeks and then, just as suddenly, turned on her, calling her mean. Before Megan's online romantic interest was exposed as an adult neighbor four houses down -- the mother of a childhood friend -- others joined in, calling Megan "fat" and a "whore."
The message that kids might be their own worst enemies on the Internet certainly resonates with Anthony E. Wolf, a practicing clinical psychologist in Massachusetts and author of "Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Cheryl and Me to the Mall?"
"What are the big problems in cyberspace?" he asks. "One definitely is the stuff that kids do to and with each other. Yes, there's cyber-bullying, but a pretty surprisingly high percentage of kids on the Internet are talking about drugs, sex and drinking in ways that are semi-innocent and not so innocent at all."
A survey conducted by USC Annenberg School's Center for the Digital Future found that in 2006, 63% of parents surveyed believed there were "quite a few" sexual predators on MySpace. In Los Angeles, parental fear appeared to have gained further traction: In a 2006 survey of L.A.-area parents by Cal State Dominguez Hills professor Larry D. Rosen, 83% reported they were concerned about sexual predators on the Internet. The same study found that 15% of kids using social networking sites reported that they'd been contacted by strangers online, and that 92% of those took appropriate steps in response.