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.
Further, researchers found no cases of stalking and abduction based on personal information posted by youths on social networking websites. In the few cases found where stalking had occurred, all of the incidents happened after predators had already met face-to-face with their victims.
Fiction: Most online predators use deception online to convince kids that they are approximately the same age. They do this to build a false sense of trust, and when the time is ripe, they encourage a face-to-face meeting with the child.
Fact: While online predators do attempt to build trust and confidence through their communication with a potential victim and eventually pursue face-to-face meetings, only 20% of actual victims (2006) stated that the predator used deception about age.
Fiction: Most online predators engage in violent behaviors or threaten their victims with violence.
Fact: Researchers found that only 5% of online predators used violence or threats of violence with their victims. Most online-initiated sex crimes where charges were filed against predators were prosecuted under statutory rape laws, where the victim was simply underage, unable to legally consent to sexual activity with an adult.
Fiction: When online predators and victims meet face-to-face, the predator forces the unwilling victim into having sex.
Fact: The reality is that the vast majority of predators are upfront about being adults who are seeking sex, and when they finally arrange a face-to-face meeting, the kids willingly meet with the predator. Of teens that had been sexually abused by an online predator in 2006, 39% had two or more face-to-face meetings. Many victims claimed to be in love or have strong feelings for the predator.
Fiction: The number of sexual abuse cases reported involving children and teens has gone up since the advent of the Internet, and particularly since social networking websites have come into popular use.
Fact: The key indicator is the overall number of child sexual abuse cases reported. This number of substantiated cases between 1992 and 2005 has actually declined by 52%. Although the reported cases of Internet-initiated sexual abuse have risen, it’s largely attributed to the fact that as the Internet and social networking sites have gained a massive influx of users, predators have also gone online and have begun using it as a new method of connecting with potential victims.
Establishing connections with kids is typical behavior for sexual predators. The Internet has simply created a new means for predators to make these connections. In other words, there is really nothing “new” about how sexual predators operate.
Instead, some predators have turned to the Internet as a source for making their connections. One other note: In 2006, law enforcement officials made more arrests (3,100) through undercover “sting” operations against online predators than there were actual cases of young people abused by online predators (615). This is a very positive sign that law enforcement departments around the country are taking online predation very seriously and should give predators everywhere reason to fear their methods due to the increased likelihood that they will be caught.
What Does It All Mean For Parents?
1) Maintain perspective. A parent’s biggest focus of concern ought to be reserved for the largest threats of sexual abuse to their children. 60% of all sexual abuse crimes against children are perpetrated by acquaintances of the victim. Family members commit 30% of these sexual crimes. This leaves only 10% of child sexual abuse crimes that are perpetrated by strangers.
Consequently, becoming a random victim of an online predator is a cause for some concern, but it doesn’t have to be a source of more fear or give rise to establishing more protective measures than parents would implement to equip and protect children against being abducted by a stranger when visiting a local mall, or when walking home from school.
2) Recognize that most kids practice safe online behaviors. With a lot information and instruction being given to kids these days about Internet safety through schools, public service announcements, and at home by parents, most kids are not at risk from predators online. Most are, in fact, quite savvy knowing what to do if they’ve been approached by a stranger online, or when receiving a sexual solicitation. Still, wise parents will be proactive making sure their children are knowledgeable in Internet safety skills.
3) Kids who interact with unknown persons online (“friending” and communicating with strangers using Internet chatrooms, instant and text messaging, and engaging in sexual discussions) are setting the table for victimization by online predators. The more kids engage in interaction with unknown persons, the more at-risk they become. Parents should make preventing these types of interaction (by discussions, setting clear boundaries, and establishing consequences) a top priority in their home.
4) Kids who are at-risk offline are at-risk online. It’s important for parents to understand that kids who are risk takers offline (behavioral problems, sexually active, drug or alcohol usage) are more likely to take risks online including interacting with unknown persons, establishing relationships with them, and ultimately meeting them face-to-face. Predators prey on vulnerable kids who may come from broken or abusive homes, suffer from loneliness and depression, and have trouble connecting with their peers. Parents should evaluate whether their kids demonstrate at-risk behaviors and strive to address these issues and their causes whether offline or online.
5) The old rules still apply. It’s simply wise for parents to follow Internet usage guidelines experts have been advocating for years: Establish clear boundaries and consequences. Strategies such as not allowing kids to post personal information online, limiting access to the Internet at home to specific amounts of time, for specific purposes and in public areas, and requiring kids to notify parents if they receive e-communication from an unknown person, are all good ways to minimize the risks of kids falling victim to an online predator.
6) Teach healthy, God-honoring sexuality. Since most kids who fall victim to an online predator do so willingly, it’s imperative that parents make sure they are proactive in teaching their kids biblical values regarding sexuality, self-esteem and purity.
Published June 22, 2009.
Trends in Arrests of “Online Predators”: Crimes Against Children Research Center http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV194.pdf
Online “Predators” and Their Victims: American Psychological Association; American Psychologist (journal), Feb-March, 2008.
Child Sexual Abuse Statistics: National Center for PTSD http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/ncmain/ncdocs/fact_shts/fs_child_sexual_abuse.html
Jim Liebelt is a 20+ year youth ministry veteran and is the Senior Editor of Publications for HomeWord, including oversight of the "Good Advice Parent Newsletter," Today’s HomeWord daily devotional, and HomeWord’s Culture Brief. Jim is also a presenter for HomeWord's parent seminar, "Building Healthy Morals and Values." Jim joined the HomeWord staff in 1998, and has served over the years in various pastoral ministries, as a youth ministry and parenting seminar speaker, an adjunct youth ministry instructor at Gordon College, a national presenter for Group Magazine Live, and has served on the council of the New England Network of Youth Ministries.