Myths and misperceptions about online predators are driving adults to misguided efforts to protect young people, according to researchers.
The public impression is that online predators are "Internet pedophiles who've moved the playground into your living room," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire.
Finkelhor was a panelist at a recent session of the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, an Internet industry association.
The common wisdom is that predators target young children by pretending to children themselves, and they lure children in using personal information gained by trickery or gathered from the Internet, Finkelhor said. Likewise, society thinks believes predators stalk children, abduct, and rape them, "or even worse," he said.
But, actually, teens, rather than young children, are usually the victims of the crimes, Finkelhor said. Victims often run away from home to be with adults they met online, fall in love with the offenders, and work against police efforts to help them, Finkelhor said.
Only 5% of cases involve violence, only 3% involve abduction, and only 4% of offenders concealed their ages from victims, Finkelhor said. And 80% were "quite explicit" about their sexual intentions.
While authorities work with parents to try to protect kids, the kids most at risk have little trust in their parents. They've been victims of physical or sexual abuse, or have substantial conflicts in their family, he said.
Young people often go online to escape from bad situations at home, said Dana Boyd, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies how young people interact online.
While society views the home as a safe haven, and the Internet as a dangerous jungle filled with predators, for many at-risk young people, the reverse is true. They go online to escape from abusive or absent parents, or -- in affluent homes especially -- to escape the overwhelming pressure to achieve.
"I talked to a boy in Iowa who had just gotten out of the hospital because his [alcoholic] father had beaten him up so badly," she said. "He kept running away and the police kept bringing him back. It's a situation that is so heart wrenching to watch. He knows that he goes online and that's his community of people that love him no matter what and aren't gonna beat him up," she said.
Parents and adult leaders need to talk to young people frankly about awkward subjects, such as young people's desires for romance and adventure, and the dangers young people face online, Finkelhor said.