Protecting Kids Online – The Myths and Realities of Online Predators

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the benefits of social networking. Often the pre- and post-Internet generation divide creates a barrier of understanding. Why is social networking so popular? What is the appeal? Why does my teen want to do this MySpace thing? Sometimes parents who are looking to protect their children from online dangers need to first identify with the positive factors that compel young people into social networking. This will provide a common ground of conversation with teens.

Social networking brings with it a need for new rules of engagement. Online socializing is like other forms of socializing: it is helpful to know the ins and outs, the danger zones, and the potential problems.

Young people often confess that online environments make them feel invincible: they lose all their inhibitions. It’s easy to see how this can lead to risky behavior.

(If you are looking for a very good introduction to the online socializing world of teens, watch the FRONTLINE documentary, “Growing Up Online.” Be advised: this is a real and raw look at the world of Internet use among teens. Some words and conversations may not be appropriate for children.)

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Online Predators

Online predators are probably the big buzz in the news lately in the area of Internet safety. Who do you imagine as an online predator: a sexual pervert or lonely adult masquerading online to rope in unsuspecting children?

The video above is a creative warning against online predators, but it may be creating more unnecessary hype than giving parents an accurate portrayal of the dangers their teens and tweens face.

Are online predators a real threat? Yes. When they are encountered, they can be a real danger. But the myths we hear are often untrue:

Myth #1: One in seven youth is contacted by an Internet predator.

This statistic is from the Youth Internet Safety Survey. In reality, many of those counted as “Internet sex offenders” were casual rude comments or solicitations from other youth (not adult offenders). Fact: On average 1 in 25 youth received an online sexual solicitation where the solicitor tried to make contact offline, via phone, mail or meeting in person.

Myth #2: Most sexual predators pretend to be other youth to lure victims into meeting with them.

The reality is most Internet sex crimes against youth are committed by offenders who do not hide the fact that they are adults with sexual intentions. Predators seduce young people by being sympathetic, flattering, and by appealing to a young person’s desire to be appreciated, understood, be romantic, take risks, and learn more about sex.

Myth #3: Most Internet predators lure children to meetings where they abduct, rape or even murder.

These cases are, in fact, uncommon (violence occurs in about 5% of the cases). Most of the time victims meet the offenders voluntarily to engage in sexual activity, typically meeting on multiple occasions. These are crimes of statutory rape, not forcible rape. These instances are, nonetheless, serious sex crimes. The youth generally believe they are in love or experience feelings of romance for the predator. The predator is taking advantage of the young person’s inexperience and vulnerability.

Myth #4: Using social networking sites and giving out any personal information online is dangerous.

Studies show that posting some personal information online does not put youth at risk. Most people (young and old) who use social networking and other online communities do publish some personal information with no observable risk. When our warnings about posting information are so broad that we exclude common practice, kids will tend to distrust the source of such advice. Fact: Internet offenders generally target teens who are willing to talk about sex online. Teen should never release sexually oriented information, erotic pictures, or express an interest in romance. Teen should never send sexual pictures of themselves via the Internet or cell phone (such picture distribution is actually considered child pornography and is a serious crime). Girls are not the only ones at risk. Boys who are wrestling through sexual orientation issues, and who are not getting their questions answered in the home or at school, may also look to the Internet community for answers. This makes them a potential target for a sex offender. Fact: Teens should exercise caution about interacting indiscriminately with unknown people online. Teens need to remember that their personal web page or personal profile can be accessed by others outside their circle of friends.

Dismantling these myths and understanding accurate information is important for several reasons. First, it keeps parents from overreacting to the very natural desire in their teen to engage in social networking and other forms of online communication. Second, as adults move away from fear mongering and towards dealing with real issues, this will increase trust and communication with teens. Teens will then be more likely to communicate to parents, teachers or the proper authorities when they spot questionable online activity. Third, online predators are a real threat, and the more we understand the facts about them, the more we can steer our teens away from dangerous online activity.

For more research on online predators read the helpful article from the February-March publication of American Psychologist and the recent article from the Journal of Adolescent Health. Read also the helpful, non-technical fact sheet about online predators from the Crimes Against Children Research Center.