Internet Predators 101: What you need to know to protect your kids

Headlines about Internet predators are fairly common today—so much so, we may have even grown deaf to them. “Man Charged with Solicitation of a Minor.” “Sexual Predator Arrested in Undercover Operation.” “Man Charged with Using Internet to Sexually Proposition 13-Year Old Girl.”

Predation is a widely reported but vastly misunderstood phenomenon. There are a variety of online predator-to-child scenarios parents need to be aware of. Knowing the truth could save your children from the dangers they face in the online world.

Scenario #1: Brutal Predators

These stories are perhaps the most nightmarish for parents to read about. This month we caught wind of a news story about a girl who posted her phone number on Facebook. An older man was able to use that information to find her address and track her down at home when she was alone.

In another story, a 38-year-old man posed as “Christine” in a chat room, eventually luring a girl from her home so he could kidnap her, take her across state lines where she was raped, beaten, and displayed on the Internet.

As distressing as these cases are, it is somewhat comforting to know that they are extremely rare. In a study of cases involving sexual offenses against children that originated with online encounters, only 5% of cases involved violence or the threat of violence, and only 3% involved actual abduction. There are over 10 million teens on Facebook in the United States, many of whom post basic personal information, with only a handful of traditional kidnapping incidents resulting from that.

Still, there are some very basic and important safety measures parents should make sure their children put in place.

  1. Know about privacy settings and make sure your child uses them. If your teen uses Facebook, watch the step-by-step instructional videos that show you how to set the right privacy settings.
  2. Talk to your teen about the danger of befriending those they do not know. Much of the purpose and value of of social networks is the ability to get to know people your friends know, and grow your personal network. But not all people on social networks are who they claim to be. Make sure your teen is aware of this.
  3. Talk to your teen about the dangers of chat rooms. Most online predation begins in chat rooms. Many teens still use chat rooms as a place to meet new people with common interests, but teens should be very careful not to give out any personal information in these spaces or avoid them altogether.

Scenario #2: Blackmailing Predators

Several years ago a man was convicted of blackmailing several young girls to perform degrading sexual acts for him. He would pose as a teenage girl online, trying to get girls to do something embarrassing in front of their webcams. He would then use recordings of their compromising acts to blackmail the girls to do more sexually explicit things for him.

In another story, a man found revealing photos of a 14-year-old girl online. Using an alias he contacted the girl through Facebook and threatened to send the photos to her friends unless she sent him a sexually explicit video of herself.

Again, these cases are thankfully rare, but they also are a part of a much larger issue known as “sextortion.” Youth today live in a confessional culture: nothing, it seems, is too embarrassing to talk about or post on the Internet. Some teens also use cellphones or the Internet to transmit sexually explicit messages or images of themselves. Nearly one out of five teens have sent nude or seminude pictures of videos of themselves, and nearly 30% of teens say they have had images like these—originally meant for someone else’s eyes—shared with them.

These compromising photos can come back to haunt teens, and many times this can be at the hand of malicious peers. What starts as a seemingly harmless and flirtatious gesture can turn into ammunition used by others to embarrass, bully, or extort.

Stories about this offer parents great opportunities to teach their children valuable lessons.

  1. Help your kids understand the importance of a good Internet reputation. In one recent survey, two out of five teenage girls said they were concerned about unwanted consequences because of stuff they have posted on their online profiles—consequences like being turned down by a potential employer, being rejected by their college of choice, or losing the respect of their friends and family. Help your children understand that images they post online may be difficult or impossible to erase.
  2. Help your kids understand their motivations behind the temptations they face online. Some girls, for instance, choose to portray a “sexy” or “crazy” image of themselves online because they lack self-esteem. Over 40% of teens say there is pressure from their peers to post sexy photos or videos. The majority of teens who have sexted have done it to be flirtatious or to get a boy’s or girl’s attention. Rather than simply addressing the compromising behavior when it arises, parents need to be aware of these pressures and motivations in their children and help them to work our their feelings in healthy ways.

Scenario #3: Befriending Predators

The vast majority of predation cases that start online fit into this category. Dr. David Finkelhor from the Crimes Against Children Research Center spoke about a typical predation case for the Internet Caucus Advisory Committee:

So for example, Jenna—this is a pretty typical case—13-year-old girl from a divorced family, frequented sex-oriented chat rooms, had the screen name, ‘Evil Girl.’ There she met a guy who, after a number of conversations, admitted he was 45. He flattered her, sent her gifts, jewelry. They talked about intimate things. And eventually, he drove across several states to meet her for sex on several occasions in motel rooms. When he was arrested in her company, she was reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement authorities.

Finkelhor’s findings are based on a study of actual cases of predation from a random sample of more than 2,500 law enforcement agencies. In these cases, nearly two-thirds of victims communicated with their offender online for more than a month, forming feelings of genuine trust, friendship, or romance. Half of victims said they felt close with or were in love with their offender. Surprisingly, very few pretended to be teens online or were dishonest about their sexual intentions. In nearly three-quarters of the cases, victims met with their offender offline more than once, and in a quarter of the cases victims ran away to be with their offender.

These statistics tell us that the majority of predation cases are actually examples of statutory rape. Predators often prey on a teen’s desire to be liked, using sympathy and flattery to manipulate them. While this is a form of deception, it is not overt deception but rather a subtle and powerful form of psychological and emotional manipulation. These are criminal seductions that take advantage of teenage vulnerabilities.

Again, parents need to know if their teen is a likely target. Teens most at risk are those who use the Internet to express an interest in sex or portray a sexy image. While it is normal for teens to be curious about sexuality and seek affirmation from others, for some this can become a secret obsession.

Peer Predators

A sexual predator is defined as an adult who solicits a minor, but studies show that unwanted solicitations are actually more common among peers.

One in five teens who regularly use the Internet say they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the last year, but nearly half of these solicitations were from others they knew were their peers and another quarter were from young adults (18 to 21 years old).

For parents it is important to train our children to react appropriately to these advances.

  1. If the solicitation has been aggressive or has caused distress, it is appropriate to contact the necessary authorities (police, school administration, and other parents).
  2. Most solicitations from other minors or older teens are not aggressive, but should be cause for alarm. It is certainly normal teenage behavior to flirt with one’s classmates or peers, but parents should teach their children appropriate boundaries of conversation. Sexual advances or conversations that are stopped early are far less likely to blossom into bigger issues.

Predator Protection: A Word About Software

Protecting our teens against predators involves good parenting more than it is involves technological barricades. Aaron Smith, Research Specialist for the Pew Internet & American Life Project, agrees: “Internet monitoring software that allows parental supervision seems to be more effective than online filtering software in limiting contact with strangers online.”

Monitoring or accountability software gives parents access to the information they need to start good conversations with their kids about their activity online. In an online world full of traps and temptations, teens need more than fences that try to keep predators out. Fences do no good if teens themselves are constantly venturing outside of them. Rather, teens need proactive parents who are willing to help them navigate through a world that wants to steal their innocence.

Photo credit: wjlonien