What comes to mind when you think of an online sexual predator? Perhaps an older man, mid-40s, stealthily tricking young kids into giving away personal information so they can stalk them offline.
There may be many predators who fit this stereotype and many who don’t, but equally important to understanding sexual predation is to understand which kids are being targeted. Sure, it might be easy to say, “All kids are being targeted.” True. But not all kids are truly “at risk.”
“Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies” is a fresh report recently published by an Internet safety task force, specifically looking at online predation and other unsafe online content. Their research suggests a different picture about sexual predators than is found in popular media.
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Who is this task force?
This task for was directed by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. One of the co-directors was Dr. Danah Boyd, a Fellow at the Berkman Center and a researcher at Microsoft Research New England, and hailed by some as the “high priestess of social networking.”
Other members of the task force included representatives from companies such as MySpace, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft Corp, Bebo, AT&T, Comcast, Family Online Safety Institute, and National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
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What did the research show?
The vast majority of kids who receive some sort of unwanted solicitation from a stranger (sexual or otherwise) tend to ignore the attempted contact. This is where most predation stops.
Those minors who do receive repeated contact from an unknown individual also generally report the problem to certain authorities.
For those minors who do meet offline with a predator, the same strong pattern emerges in the vast majority of the cases: The minor is usually a teen (hardly ever a preteen) who knows full well that they are going to meet with an adult; about 70% of these teens meet repeatedly with the predator over a period of time.
In short, teens most vulnerable to predation online fit the profile of the same sort of teens who are vulnerable to statutory rape and predation offline. This is not the picture that Dateline has made so popular.
Teens who receive these contacts with predators rarely receive them in social networks (such as MySpace or Facebook). Most of the time predators and minors connect through chat rooms, and occasionally through IM. Again, this is usually because there is a subsection of kids who typically use chat rooms, the same kids who are most at risk in general.
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Criticism of this Research
Some have questioned this research, especially those in law enforcement and those who have been behind sting operations trying to catch predators. The attorneys general of several states have questioned the conclusions of this research because the data doesn’t match their arrest records. They say that predators are always being caught going after all types of children.
The problem with this observation is that sting operations and real teenagers are two different things. Police are trying to catch predators online, trying to bait them, trying to meet with them. Most teens are not. While predators may be everywhere online, their tactics are not likely to work on just any teenager or young child.
It would be interesting to isolate the cases where arrests were made of predators who were meeting up with real teens (not just detectives pretending to be kids). So far, some preliminary studies show that the teens involved in these real cases still match the at-risk profile this study suggests.
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How can a concerned parent use this information?
1. Recognize the benefits of the Internet.
Social networks and other forms of online teen interaction are here to stay. Educate yourself about the Internet and the ways teens use it. To isolate a teen from the Internet or social networks is not always the best answer to protecting them. Allow your teen to experience the great benefits of social networking and online communication.
2. Make simple online safety rules.
Instill in your teens the same sort of safety ideals they learned in kindergarten: Don’t talk to strangers. Teens who are polled usually discount the widespread cultural fear around sexual predators. Their response is usually something like, “When you’re online, just don’t be stupid.” Well said.
Overall, parents should be involved in a child’s online education from an early age, setting appropriate limits and instilling good behavior from the start.
3. Know if your child or other children are at-risk.
This may be hard to do, but well worth looking at. The problem is, many kids who are truly at-risk also come from homes where guardians don’t display any concern whether they are at-risk. This is why it is vital for concerned parents to watch out, not only for their children, but also for other children in the community that may be targeted.
For more information watch Just the Facts About Online Youth Victimization.
4. Use technology
The task force recommends, “Parents and caregivers should explore and evaluate the effectiveness of available technological tools for their particular children and family context, and adopt those tools appropriately.”
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