July 3-10, 2006 issue – 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.)