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The Predator Fear

Have we allowed our fears about our children's safety to run wild? Experts lay out the reality versus the myth about online predators, how much of the hysteria may be media-driven, and why the child next door could be the real danger.

Peter Brust
FBI special agent in charge, Counterintelligence and Cyber Divisions, Los Angeles FBI field office

photo of brust

The [Justice Department's] cyber crimes section is involved with all manners of crime committed over the Internet. ... The majority of our time is devoted to online sexual exploitation of children, Internet predators. ... The Innocent Images National Initiative was begun in the Baltimore field office ... back in 1993, based on the abduction of an 11-year-old boy in Prince George's County, Md. That's the first time that the FBI had encountered computers being used by predators to target children.

We started keeping statistics in 1996, and we opened 113 cases that year. Through fiscal year 2007, we've opened 20,200 and arrested almost 10,000 subjects for sexually exploiting children online. So it's a crime problem that has grown exponentially over the years and continues to grow every year. ...

[What do you say to people who say the country is experiencing a "predator panic," that we're perceiving a much bigger problem than the statistics would demonstrate?]

... Whether it's one in five children solicited online, whether it's one in seven, what price do you put on that one child that is victimized? Is it worth 200 FBI agents working nationwide to save that one child from being victimized? ... So it's not a question of resources and hysteria; it's a question of, we just can't afford to have our children continue to be victimized by these predators. ...

The crime problem is on the rise and has been for the last 12 years. I don't see any indications that it's going to be diminished in any sense, no matter how much publicity is given the crime problem and the so-called "Internet predator hysteria." ...

[Give me a sense of the scale of resources that the FBI is investing.]

At any one time, the FBI has 30 undercover operations internationally addressing this crime problem. We have, at one time, over 200 FBI agents working this crime problem full-time nationwide.

Here in Los Angeles, there's a very aggressive multi-agency task force. There are also 45 different Internet-crimes-against-children task forces funded by the Department of Justice and managed by other state, federal and local police agencies, including one here in Los Angeles with the Los Angeles Police Department. So we have multiple task forces online. We're conducting investigations that cover the gamut of Internet activity. ...

[Is there any truth to this idea that some of these kids are going willingly, that we have the wrong idea when we think of this only in terms of abductions?]

The figures, as far as I'm aware of them, indicate probably 83 percent of child victims go willingly with the subject, with the predator. But again the ages of these victims are anywhere from 13 to 15, 16 years old. These children have not developed a mental capacity to match wits with a 40-year-old adult who's been doing this for the last 15 years, targeting children online. They are recruited. They are brainwashed. They're not making logical decisions. They're not making intelligent, knowing decisions to go with these people. ...

And I'm telling you, a lot of kids are savvy. If a stranger contacts them online, if someone makes an unwanted sexual advance, ... they just click off or they'll tell their parents. But many don't. Many just think that they're smarter than anyone else and they know how to handle it. But sometimes it gets out of hand. ...

[When you talk about "matching wits," what do you mean, in terms of the predators' techniques?]

... Based on my experience, the sexual predator online will try to become the confidante or friend, confessor of the victim. They'll go into Web sites, they'll go places on the Internet where they know maybe vulnerable children are located; for instance, chatrooms dealing with loss, chatrooms dealing with skateboarding, pets, mourning. They will go into these rooms purporting to be another kid, and they'll strike up conversations with children.

And they'll have buddy lists. We did a search warrant this morning, where we seized multiple hard drives and computers where these predators will have upwards of a thousand contacts, a thousand buddies lined up. And they catalog them. They know what time they're on at night; they know what they like.

They keep notes. We've seized binders, volumes of binders, where these predators will have photographs of children's schools, swim teams, basketball teams, any type of social group where there's children. And they'll catalog them, and they'll look on Web sites. They have all the time in the world; they'll spend all night. Some of them don't have jobs. That's all they do; it's their full-time job is to find children on the Internet. ...

[How can you communicate the risk to parents without causing hysteria?]

... I'm surprised at the number of times I go to give school presentations or parent group presentations when the parents say, "I didn't know that; I had no idea that you could check the history of their online usage. I had no idea that my child was a member of this social networking site or had this screen name or had this profile." They just don't know. ...

We interview teenage victims; we interview teenage non-victims. The non-victims, again, are very savvy to the safety issues of the Internet. They value their privacy; ... they view it as a violation of their rights for the parents to be standing over their shoulder or to monitor their use or to have their passwords.

On the other hand, we interview child predators as well, and pedophiles, they tell us the exact opposite. They say, "I can't believe that parents do not monitor their child's online use, that they don't know their passwords, that they aren't standing over their shoulder. Because that's what I look for: I look for the child that's online at midnight; I look for that child that's more open, that's more vulnerable. And there are so many of them." ...

It's risk management. If you can take a few simple steps to try to minimize that risk, such as communicating with your child. They're much smarter than we are when it comes to the computer. You have to have open dialogue. I find that the strongest weapon against online exploitation is communication, sharing your interest.

David Finkelhor, Ph.D.
Director, Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire

photo of finkelhor, Ph.D.

Back in 2000, we conducted a national survey of youth (PDF file). ... We found that about one in five of the kids had experienced unwanted sexual solicitation when they were online ... over the course of the year. In 2005, we redid that study (PDF file); it had been reduced to only one in seven of the kids. So that seemed to be a positive development.

[What are the myths that you've been able to correct with your research?]

The one-in-five number certainly did sensitize people to the fact that kids are getting a lot of unwanted solicitations. But I don't think what got adequately publicized was not all of these are hardened Internet predators who are making the solicitations. We in fact don't know, but considerable numbers of them are undoubtedly coming from other kids, or just people who are acting weird online. ...

We have this idea that these Internet pedophiles are targeting young children through the online hookup, that they've moved into your living room, that they're misleading kids by pretending to be other kids and getting them to give out personal information. And then these kids go to meet someone who they think is a friend, and at that point they get abducted, assaulted or even murdered. That's really not what's going on in most of these crimes. ...

First of all, these crimes primarily involve adolescents; very few [involve] young children. These crimes do not involve stalking or abduction or violence. The teenagers generally know or find out fairly quickly that they are talking to an adult who is interested in sex, but they continue the conversation. They get involved in these because they're teens out there online, some of them from troubled backgrounds, some of them with issues of abuse or sexual-orientation issues. They're looking for information about sex; they're looking to connect with people; they're looking for romance. And these adults play into that, and so they continue the conversation.

They talk about sex with these people, and then eventually they go off to meet them feeling some level of trust, sometimes even a sense of love and affection for this person they've been communicating with. Typically they return on several occasions for sexual encounters. And so this is very different from the impression that you might get from the images in the media about this problem. ...

I don't think it also conveyed the fact that most kids are really handling these solicitations quite responsibly and not responding, and that they're not all that affected by them, either; that they regard them as litter on their information superhighway and just kind of blow them off.

When I talk these days, I like to emphasize the statistic of one in 20 of youth encountering what we call an "aggressive sexual solicitation" -- that is, one that really threatened to go offline, where somebody made an effort to contact them or meet them -- and those seem to me to be the more serious of the group.

[That statistic is not talked about as often.]

The one-in-20 statistic is not talked about as much. ... The one-in-seven statistic is the one that people want to use to sensitize people to the fact that there is a problem out there, and so they're going to cite the biggest number that they can. ... But what I think needs to happen, though, is that people really need to put that in context and present it in a way that gives the fuller picture.

Anne Collier
Author, MySpace Unraveled

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We need to start thinking about our kids less as victims and more as participants, because this is the participatory Web, it's the social Web. They're participants, they're driving this space, and the research also shows that the kids who are most at risk online ... are kids who are showing aggressive behavior themselves. So they're the ones most at risk, not the kids who passively sitting around like sitting ducks ...

... Is there a negative to all this attention that's been given to the online predator issue? ...

I definitely think all the hype about sexual predators -- that I don't think we're seeing in other countries, it seems to be a big thing here in the United States -- I think it is drawing attention away from what we really need to be thinking about, and that is what kids do to themselves and each other.

What really concerns me is cases like two teenagers in Florida who ... were convicted for distributing child pornography, in effect; they had taken sexually explicit images of themselves, and one of them had simply sent those photos to his e-mail account. And these are kids doing something that maybe kids have been doing since the beginning of time, and sometimes they're really stupid things, but now I guess a court decided that they needed to be made an example of so that other kids don't do that. ...

In another case, a 13-year-old in Connecticut shared some sexually explicit photos of herself with a boyfriend. They broke up, the boyfriend had them in his e-mail. Some kid had access to his password, found the photos and sent them around. They were posted on a Web page so everybody at school could see them. And you can only imagine the damage that that did to that child's life. ...

Kids haven't developed the executive part of their brains yet, right? And that's what really worries me, is they need to know that silly, stupid or felonious things that they're doing online can have a huge impact on their lives. And they need the input of their parents and other people who love them.

Parry Aftab
Executive director,

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Everyone is panicking about sexual predators online, ... that's why parents are freaking. But what they really need to freak about and pay a lot more attention about is cyberstalking, harassment and cyberbullying ...

I talk to 10,000 teens and pre-teens a month in person, 10,000. We have polled 50,000 of these kids and found that between 85 and now 100 percent ... of the kids told me that they had been cyberbullied at least once. ....

We've had six kids that I'm aware of commit suicide in the United States in the last few years because they've been cyberbullied, and just recently we've just lost the first kid who committed suicide because her best friend had been cyberbullied and committed suicide six months before. So we now have one level beyond the cyberbullying, where kids have decided they can't live with what's happening to them. ...

What is a cyberbully?

A cyberbully is someone who uses interactive technology to hurt, threaten, frighten, intimidate someone else. And the kids are limited only by their bandwidth, imaginations and boredom, which means they're not limited at all. So kids do it either because they're angry with somebody, somebody is not the in-group and they're doing it to show that they are socially superior -- for all of the same reasons that they always bully.

In addition, .... [you also have the kid who has] been a victim of a real-life bully being able to use the technology to hide behind the monitor and hurt the kids that are bigger than they are, or going out and defending other kids who are weaker than they are.

So the technology is being used to hurt other kids, whether it's a cell phone or an interactive gaming device, whether it's an interactive game site, whether it's a social network, whether it's a chatroom, whether it's instant messaging. Any type of technology that allows you to communicate, post information or take over someone else's account is used to hurt, intimidate, frighten another kid. ...

Kids are making fun of each other. There's hate stuff out there; they're targeting each other; they're threatening each other; they're telling each other's secrets; they're stealing each other's passwords and locking them out of the accounts and attacking their friends posing as them. They may take a picture of them in a locker room, at a slumber party, in a bathroom, in a changing room, and post it online to hurt them. They may say lies about their sexual preferences or their sexual behaviors in a way that really affects them. ...

Give me an age group about when cyberbullying starts.

... Cyberbullying starts in second grade these days, as soon as they're interactive, which is becoming younger and younger with sites like Webkinz and Club Penguin and kids using text messaging on cell phones and AIM at much earlier ages. It starts at six or seven these days. It generally tends to fall off at about the age of 14. After that, you may have cyberstalking and harassment, but it tends to be more sexually oriented; you break up with a girl or boy, you target them because you're unhappy. ... Those kind of things tend to be sexually oriented and much tougher ...

I want to just touch on the suicide subject, because you've mentioned it a few times. ... Do you have numbers? Is it on the rise? Do we know?

No one really knows how many of the suicides you can tie to the Internet. We received lots of cases of kids who committed suicide because of the things they've been taught how to do online. ... You're seeing a growth across the country in suicide, anyway, so it's hard to tie it to this. I will just tell you anecdotally, I believe that the Internet is contributing to this, and a lot of the social networks are telling us they're seeing lots of suicide threats online, and they're looking for help in dealing with them.

John Halligan
Father of Ryan Halligan, who committed suicide at age 13 after being bullied by classmates at school and online

At the time [that you gave Ryan a computer in his room], what were you concerned about? What was out there in the media?

At the time, I was concerned about what everybody was concerned about: predators and pedophiles, right? I mean, that was what the media was talking about. You heard the horror stories of kids meeting somebody online, thinking that other person was their age, agreeing to meet up with them at the mall, and it ends up being an adult with intentions that sometimes ended up in rape and murder. I was extremely hypersensitive about those concerns. ...

Did you ever think about the other stuff, the darker, more internal emotional stuff that the computer could trigger, or [was that] just another world?

Never gave a thought to the whole issue of social interactions on the computer. Totally oblivious to this concept. I looked at the computer like a telephone: You need to get ahold of somebody, you find them on IM, and you send them a message. ...

I have been blown away with how this whole technology has evolved into being a critical part of their social life and their socialization among themselves. It's more than just having a conversation. It's about how they portray themselves. Their screen name -- to me, that's like what they wear to school. ...

And then the whole interaction -- it really isn't just one-on-one conversations. It's as if they were standing there in the playground talking. They're doing it now in a very virtual way. ...

What about Ryan's persona online? ... What is that experience like for you as a parent?

I think any parent, if they had the ability to, ... I hate to use the word "spy," but spy and read the raw conversations that are going on in instant messaging, a lot of adults would be shocked. ... I was very upset at my own son's behavior online, but also upset about just how everything that was going on at school ... just got completely out of control online.

In the pre-computer days, the kid would have an experience like that, they'd come home, they'd have a chance to just completely shut down. Even if they didn't want to talk to Mom and Dad, they would go into their bedroom, close the door, put their head on the pillow, perhaps put on their headphones and listen to their music and just try to chill out.

Kids are not doing that. They're coming home and they're getting right onto the computer, and the drama continues right into the evening. Nobody is taking a break. And they're acting out and behaving in a way that they would never in person, especially in front of adults. ... There's just no check and balances occurring online.

What specifically was it about the tone that you were seeing? Was it the same kid? What were the differences?

You know, there is a natural inclination, when you read something -- especially something that somebody else wrote -- you're hearing their voice. So I was trying to attach his voice to the words, and it was a different Ryan. A lot of points seemed to be expressing a lot of frustration and anger in a very unhealthy way.

His own peers -- I knew these kids in person -- when you read the words and attach the voice to it, it's hard to put the two together. There is just something about being online that seems to remove any sense of self-checking and sense of responsibility or proper behavior. ...

Stepping back from this, what do you blame Ryan's death on, and what role do you think cyberspace had?

... There was failure and mistakes along the way on everybody's side of this issue. As parents we made mistakes. I misread certain signs. I clearly made a mistake putting that computer in his room. I allowed the computer to become too much of his life. I did not establish balance.

I think the whole bullying issue right from the beginning was mishandled, not only by us as parents, but by the school. That's why I fought so hard for the Bully Prevention [Law] in Vermont; I wanted to make sure that schools understood their role and responsibility, that every child should be afforded a safe environment, not just physically but emotionally. ...

I can't blame the computer. The computer and the Internet were not the cause of my son's suicide, but I believe they helped amplify and accelerate the hurt and the pain that he was trying to deal with that started at school and in person in the real world.

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posted january 22, 2008

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