Questioning the Notion of Online Predators
A new study published by the American Psychological Association (APA) raises tough questions about the conventional wisdom regarding online predators. The study takes aim at the mainstream media’s coverage of online predation, labeling its portrayal of the phenomenon as “largely inaccurate.”
The study (pdf), “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention,” was published in American Psychologist, an APA journal. The research was based on three surveys over the last six years. Two of them involved telephone interviews of a combined 3,000 Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17, first in 2000 and again in 2005. The third survey involved 12 interviews with federal, state and local law enforcement officials between October 2001 and July 2002.
The authors of the study summarize their research this way:
The publicity about online “predators” who prey on naive children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate. Internet sex crimes involving adults and juveniles more often fit a model of statutory rape - adult offenders who meet, develop relationships with, and openly seduce under-age teenagers - than a model of forcible sexual assault or pedophilic child molesting. This is a serious problem, but one that requires approaches different from those in current prevention messages emphasizing parental control and the dangers of divulging personal information.
Developmentally appropriate prevention strategies that target youths directly and acknowledge normal adolescent interests in romance and sex are needed. These should provide younger adolescents with awareness and avoidance skills while educating older youths about the pitfalls of sexual relationships with adults and their criminal nature. Particular attention should be paid to higher risk youths, including those with histories of sexual abuse, sexual orientation concerns, and patterns of off- and online risk taking. Mental health practitioners need information about the dynamics of this problem and the characteristics of victims and offenders because they are likely to encounter related issues in a variety of contexts.
“To prevent these crimes, we need accurate information about their true dynamics,” explains lead author Janis Wolak, of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center. “The things that we hear and fear and the things that actually occur may not be the same. The newness of the environment makes it hard to see where the danger is.”
Among their findings:
- Internet offenders pretended to be teenagers in only five percent of the crimes studied by researchers.
- Nearly 75 percent of victims who met offenders face-to-face did so more than once.
- Online sex offenders are seldom violent, and cases involving stalking or abduction are very rare.
- Youth who engaged in four or more risky online behaviors were much more likely to report receiving online sexual solicitations. The online risky behaviors included maintaining buddy lists that included strangers, discussing sex online with people they did not know in person and being rude or nasty online.
One finding that struck me in particular regarded the role that social networks play - or perhaps more accurately, do not play - when it comes to young people being stalked by online predators:
Media stories have suggested that online molesters could use the information youths post about their identities and activities to locate and stalk these youths. Nonetheless, a close perusal of media stories suggest that online molesters have not changed their tactics as a result of the advent of social networking sites…. [W]e conducted over 400 interviews with police about Internet-related sex crimes… and we have yet to find cases of sex offenders stalking and abducting minors on the basis of information posted on social networking sites. Online molesters do not appear to be stalking unsuspecting victims but rather continuing to seek youths who are susceptible to seduction…. Further, an online survey of a representative sample of over 1,500 Internet users conducted in 2006 found that youths were more likely to receive online sexual solicitations via instant messages or in chatrooms than through social networking sites.
“Most Internet-initiated sex crimes involve adult men who are open about their interest in sex,” Wolak adds. “The offenders use instant messages, e-mail and chat rooms to meet and develop intimate relationships with their victims. In most of the cases, the victims are aware that they are talking online with adults.” -andy