The February edition of the American Psychologist (63:2) has an article surveying the literature regarding, “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims.” The authors start by making this assertion, “The publicity about online “predators” who prey on naive children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate.” (p. 111). So, what is the truth as we know it now?
1. “…Internet-initiated sex crimes–those in which sex offenders meet juvenile victims on-line–is different, more complex, and serious but less archetypically frightening than the publicity about these crimes suggests.” (p. 111-2) The on-line predators are not usually pedophiles and are rarely violent (unless you would believe that convincing a minor to have sex is by very nature a violation and therefore violent.) And yet, child porn is often found with these offenders (maybe more teen version than pre-pubescent).
2. After surveying current literature, crime stats, and law enforcement agencies, they find that most crimes, “involve men who use the Internet to meet and seduce underage adolescents into sexual encounters.” (p. 112). Generally, these men do not deceive the minors about their age. Only 5% pretended to be teens. The deceptions that are present are promises of love and romance. So, the authors suggest these crimes usually fit statutory rape (non-forced sexual contact of an adult with a minor) rather than child abuse or pedophilia. (This assumes that the latter is not as bad as the former???)
3. At the present time, it appears that Internet-initiated statutory rape accounts for 7% of all statutory rape cases. Sex crimes against youth are not increasing (based on a decrease in substantiated child sexual abuse cases and reports of sexual assaults by teens). So, the evidence of marked increase is not yet found per these authors. Of course, this does not account for the marked increase in sex exposure that is very definitely happening. Nor does it account for the increase in children being spoken to in sexual terms by other folks on-line. I would want to assume this is an offense.
4. The victims are rarely young children. Instead, they are teens (and more likely the 15-17 year olds) taking risks with personal information. What actions make these teens vulnerable? Its not so much that they post identifying information about themselves (since a very large proportion do this). Rather, they send personal information to an unknown person, chat with an unknown person (only 5% do this), have unknown persons in their “buddy” lists, use the Internet to look for sexual material, spend time on file-sharing sites, have off-line sexual abuse histories, have same-sex attraction, and/or use the Internet to make threatening comments to others (this is interesting, those willing to attack others on-line are themselves more at risk for being sexualized).
The point the authors are making is that media accounts may focus too much on the younger child victim image and miss the typical offender in his late twenties that is immature and unable to relate well to peers so he pursues younger teens to make him feel more manly. If this is the case, then they argue that our prevention plans should be to increase education regarding the nature and consequences of statutory rape, to focus more on adolescents rather than their parents. This is probably a good idea. However, having parents actually know and track their kids on-line behavior is still the best bet. There is no reason a child needs to be in a chat room. period. And just because it isn’t so much about pedophiles, lets not let our guard down. Statutory rape isn’t any better just because the victim thinks they are consenting.