Expect some lurid stories over coming days about the “serious” risk posed by “cyber-grooming” and the sexual solicitation of children online. This morning broadband minister Senator Stephen Conroy published the report Review of Existing Australian and International Cyber-safety Research. The first bullet point in Conroy’s media release?

Cyber-grooming and sexual solicitation are potentially the most serious cyber-safety risks.

Expect more tabloid-style stories to blur the facts and exaggerate that “potential” risk.

Take cyber-stalking, for example. While the report recognises that the exact prevalence in Australia is unknown, it extrapolates overseas research to estimate that “approximately 7% of people were subjected to cyber-stalking behaviours.”

That’s all people, not just kids, and all kinds of stalking behaviour over time, not just s-xual. But you can bet that careless reporting will soon turn that into 7% of our kids being stalked by sexual predators.

The 265-page report was produced by Edith Cowan University as part of the government’s $2.3 million budget for cyber-safety research. It contains numbers that are sure to be quoted endlessly.

10% of Australian children report cyber-bullying behaviour, compared with international prevalence rates of around 50%. Does that mean we have fewer bullies here, or that bullying is under-reported? 84% of boys and 60% of girls in Australia claim they’ve been accidentally exposed to pornography online.

Yet the real message is that most of these numbers are dodgy.

Those figures for kids viewing pornography, for instance, are from that somewhat suspect 2003 report by Michael Flood and Clive Hamilton.

As this new report says:

In general, our review of the scientific and non-scientific literature revealed significant and major gaps in most areas of cyber-safety research, particularly for Australian-based research. Most of the areas addressed in this report have been subjected to only cursory examination in the literature. Further, our review revealed that topics often addressed in the popular media have received scant attention in the scientific literature. For example, online grooming is a risk associated with the use of the Internet that has not been subject to thorough scientific investigation in methodologically sound research studies.

Odd. No methodologically sound research but, in the confident words of the Minister’s media release, “potentially the most serious cyber-safety risks”.

Cyber-bullying research is still new. Little is known about the motivations of the bullies or the long-term effects on the victims.

Other topics which have received only cursory examination include cyber-stalking, promotion of inappropriate social and health behaviours (although there’s been some work on the online promotion of smoking), online grooming and exposure to things like online hate websites and pro-anorexia websites.

And there’s no Australian research on the effects of pornography.

Despite this, much has been written about the harmful effects of Internet (and other) pornography, which is based on personal opinion and religious beliefs. For example, Roslyn Phillips, a research officer from the Festival of Light Australia (a Christian Ministry) argues that the most compelling evidence that pornographic and violent images change a viewer’s behaviour is that it is “common sense”.

“The Edith Cowan report provides a useful basis for future research to inform the Government’s responses,” says Senator Conroy.

Yes. It shows very clearly how little we actually know, and highlights the need for more comprehensive research to provide a sound basis for… oh, what’s that phrase again?

Ah yes!

Evidence-based policy.

The next research project will develop a repeatable survey instrument and methodology for data collection on the changes in behaviour in relation to cyber-safety and relevant e-security risks. Procurement is currently underway.