friendrequest1021908.pngA new study shows that sexual predators don’t normally sneak into online social networks and masquerade as children to find their victims. This news partially vindicates large social networks like Facebook and MySpace that have faced criticism for not doing enough to protect under-age users from predator adults.

Most of the time, actually, an online sexual offender will clearly state their desire to have sex with young teenagers, according to a new study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The teenagers respond positively because they think they’re being romanced.

The social networks themselves don’t expose teens to extra risk, the study found.

This finding is sure to cause some embarrassment in the office of Andrew Cuomo, state attorney general of New York. Last year, undercover investigators from his office posed as minors on Facebook to try and see if they could attract sexual predators. They did, and Cuomo launched a full investigation of Facebook’s child-protecting practices (our coverage).

The New Hampshire study, however, wasn’t a few detectives fooling around on Facebook. Instead, it included a series of telephone interviews with 3,000 internet users between the ages of 10 and 17 done both in 2000 and again in 2005. It also included more than 600 interviews with federal, state and local law enforcement officials across the US, and a careful look at related studies.

The study found that Internet offenders only pretended to be teenagers in five percent of the crime cases studied.

So Cuomo was wrong to try to study the problem of online pedophilia by having his investigators pose as minors, if nothing else. However, a “huge number of grandstanding politicians” have used the issue to portray social networks as breeding grounds for pedophilia, as Mike Masnick at Techdirt points out. Creating a culture of fear among the voting population, then battling that fear through drastic legislation — that’s a classic technique for getting re-elected.

Obviously, though, kids should be protected online — and work still needs to be done, in some form. A working group of attorney generals from 49 states have worked with MySpace, for example, to impose reasonable precautions like putting child-safety tips on every page, and introducing a setting where underage users can only communicate with people who are also underage.

And Cuomo, to be fair, had also discovered that Facebook was also taking awhile to respond to legitimate complaints. In a settlement last year, Facebook agreed to begin addressing complaints within 24 hours of being notified, and respond to the the aggrieved party within 72 hours (our coverage).

Nevertheless, “[t]he things that we hear and fear and the things that actually occur may not be the same,” as Janis Wolak, a co-author of the study, succinctly put it.

Imposter pedophiles on social networks may appear threatening, but the offenders more typically use instant messages, e-mail and chat rooms to meet victims, the study says, although it didn’t release specific data showing what forms of communication were most popular. Another recent study, however, shows that less than a third of solicitations came through social networking sites — IM and chat rooms were much more likely to deliver unsolicited sex chat.

In fact, the New Hampshire researchers found, the victims were typically kids who were in love with the offenders — nearly 75 percent of the victims even met their offenders more than once, in person. It is the teens’ own risky behavior, such as having IM discussions with strangers about sex, that puts them at risk, not the fact that they use social networks.