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“How Googling Unmasks Child Abuse”

The New York Times recently featured a thought provoking article that shows what many child advocates have long known – Official statistics on the rates of child abuse can be misleading and often fail to tell the complete story about child maltreatment.

Click here to read the full article

DURING the Great Recession, child abuse and neglect appeared to decline. Incidents reported to local authorities dropped. “The doom-and-gloom predictions haven’t come true,” Richard Gelles, a child-welfare expert at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Associated Press in 2011.

The real story about child maltreatment during the recession is a grim one. I spent months studying this topic, using a number of different data sources, including Google search queries. I found that the Great Recession caused a significant increase in child abuse and neglect. But far fewer of these cases were reported to authorities, with much of the drop due to slashed budgets for teachers, nurses, doctors and child protective service workers.

Here’s what caused the initial optimism: from 2006 to 2009, the number of cases reported to child protective services decreased by 1 percent nationally. Remarkably, the biggest drops were in the states hardest hit by the recession. Nevada, despite an unemployment rate that rose as high as 13.3 percent, showed a 17.5 percent drop in reports of maltreatment of children.

The first clue that the official statistics were misleading comes from looking at the most extreme forms of abuse and neglect, which are least susceptible to reporting pressures: child-fatality rates. During the downturn, there was a comparative increase in these rates in states that were hardest hit by the recession. From 2006 to 2009, Nevada’s fatality rate from abuse or neglect rose 50 percent.

But child fatalities are, thankfully, rare. I also used a novel technique for studying child maltreatment: an analysis of anonymous, aggregate Google searches. (I am currently an intern at Google, but I finished the doctoral research on which this essay is based before joining the company.) Google queries provide an immensely powerful database, particularly on sensitive topics that people don’t discuss freely with pollsters or authorities or even the friends and family members they know best. Online, often unobserved, we tend to be very honest.

I examined a heart-wrenching category of searches: those likely to have been made by recent victims of abuse who were old enough to use Google. These searches included “My dad hit me” or “Why did my father beat me?” I also examined a more common class of Google queries: those that include the words “child abuse” or “child neglect.” In some sense, this Google data is like a survey of how many people suspected child maltreatment at a given time. If you see something that worries you, you may well ask Google about “child abuse signs” or “child abuse effects.” more…

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