For most parents, keeping kids safe online is a high priority. Over the past few years, we’ve all heard our share of sad but true horror stories of kids who were identified online, then stalked, abducted, abused and in a few cases murdered by real life monsters we refer to as online predators. As more research emerges, it’s important that parents are aware of new conclusions and formulate their family’s plan of action for protecting kids online.

Online predators conjure up certain images in our minds. It’s likely that we might envision a scruffy, middle-aged adult who spends the day sitting behind a computer trolling social networking sites, looking for personal information a child or teen has posted to her or his profile.

Once a potential victim has been identified, we might think the predator will begin stalking the child using the personal information they’ve found. Or, perhaps the predator will attempt to contact the child online, hoping to build a false sense of trust through the use of deceptive practices. Eventually, if given enough information and time, the predator meets or abducts and abuses their victim.

In the relatively short time that sexual predators have been plying their evil trade online, media outlets, authors, and researchers have reported about the most extreme examples of aberrant behavior. These have all combined, contributing to the construction of a stereotype that has been called into question.

In our day, technologies and methods of communication are introduced and change so rapidly that research as to their impact upon society requires a certain amount of lag time before accurate conclusions can be drawn. Researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center and Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire recently released the most recent and thorough investigation to-date on online predators and their victims. The study indicates that the early stereotype of online predators was largely inaccurate, and not representative of how these crimes are typically committed.

To help parents get a handle on the issue of online predators, the following is an attempt to separate fact from fiction as it applies to behaviors of online predators:

Fiction: Most online predators are looking for young children to abuse.

Fact: Most victims of online predators are adolescents, with 73% (2006) being between the ages of 13 and 15. Online predators are not typically pedophiles, but focus their attentions on adolescents who have reached an age of physical sexual maturity.

During the research period (2006) no crimes of Internet-initiated sexual abuse of children under the age of 10 were discovered. This makes sense given the fact that younger children have much more limited online access, are closely monitored by parents, have little opportunity to interactively engage with unknown persons on the Internet, and generally lack knowledge and maturity to converse about sexual themes.

Fiction: Most online predators are registered sex offenders.

Fact: While there have been many reports in the media regarding the numbers of registered sex offenders on social networking websites, and attempts to purge them from these sites, only 10% of online predators arrested in 2006 had prior arrests for sex offenses and only 4% of predators arrested were registered sex offenders.

Fiction: Most online predators search for personal information that children have posted to social networking profiles so that they can stalk potential victims.

Fact: While posting personal information online that can be easily identified, such as home address, phone number, specific activities and photos, is an unwise practice, it was not in and of itself a predictor of sexual solicitations or eventual victimization by online predators. Rather, online interaction between an online predator and a young person, including the discussion of sexual topics online was much more predictive of trouble to follow.