"Internet Predator" Stereotypes Debunked in New Study
By Lori Wright, Media Relations
February 20, 2008
Contrary to stereotype, most Internet sex offenders are not adults who target
young children by posing as another youth, luring children to meetings, and
then abducting or forcibly raping them, according to researchers at UNH who
have studied the nature of Internet-initiated sex crimes.
Rather, most online sex offenders are young adults who target teens and seduce
victims into sexual relationships. They take time to develop the trust and
confidence of victims, so that the youth see these relationships as romances
or sexual adventures. The youth most vulnerable to online sex offenders have
histories of sexual or physical abuse, family problems, and tendencies to take
risks both on- and offline, according to the researchers at the UNH Crimes
against Children Research Center.
In short, the researchers draw a clearer picture about adults who troll the
Internet for sex with minors in the study, “Online ‘Predators’ and
Their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention,” published
in the February/March issue of American Psychologist. The journal is published
by the American Psychological Association.
The study was based on three surveys — two comprising telephone interviews
of a combined 3,000 Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17; first in
2000 and again in 2005; and one involving 612 interviews with federal, state
and local law enforcement officials in the United States between October 2001
and July 2002. These studies were conducted by Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor,
and Kimberly Mitchell at the Crimes against Children Research Center.
“To prevent these crimes, we need accurate information about their true
dynamics,” said Janis Wolak, lead author of the study. “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.”
For example, in spite of public concern, the authors found that adolescents’ use
of popular social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook do not appear
to increase their risk of being victimized by online predators. Rather, it
is risky online interactions such as talking online about sex to unknown people
that increases vulnerability, according to the researchers.
“Most Internet-initiated sex crimes involve adult men who are open about
their interest in sex,” Wolak said. “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.”
“A majority of the offenders are charged with crimes such as statutory
rape, that involve non-forcible sexual activity with adolescent victims who
are too young to consent to sexual intercourse with adults,” she added.
Current educational efforts that are focused on discouraging children from
giving out or posting personal information, warning about deception online,
and urging parents to monitor their children may not be effective, according
to the authors.
Wolak and her colleagues say more effort should be directed at helping teens
appreciate the drawbacks and inappropriateness of romantic relationships with
adults. These efforts should include frank discussions of the dynamics of Internet-initiated
sex crimes. Since many of the victims do not have good relationships with parents,
ways to reach vulnerable teens directly, through sources they find credible,
need to be found.
Among the study’s other findings:
· Internet offenders pretended to be teenagers in only 5 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
· Boys who are gay or are questioning their sexuality may be more susceptible
to Internet-initiated sex crimes than other populations. Researchers found
boys were the victims in nearly one-quarter of criminal cases, and most cases
included facts that suggested victims were gay or questioning their sexuality.
The UNH Crimes against Children Research Center works to combat crimes against
children by providing high-quality research and statistics to the public, policymakers,
law enforcement personnel, and other child welfare practitioners. CCRC is concerned
with research about the nature of crimes including child abduction, homicide,
rape, assault, and physical and sexual abuse as well as their impact. For more
information, visit http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/.