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Misguided common wisdom about online predators often leads to ineffective efforts to protect young people, according to researchers.

Mitch Wagner

June 14, 2007

5 Min Read

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.

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.

"And unfortunately, these aren't easy sells," Finkelhor said. "It's just like discouraging kids from drinking or smoking. Simple scare tactics really don't work well. The effective strategies require in-depth maneuvering within the complications of teenage psychology. I don't think we really know all the answers to that yet. We haven't got it figured out."

Internet predation needs to be put into perspective. Only 7% of statutory rape arrests were the result of Internet-initiated activities, said Michele Ybarra, president of Internet Solutions for Kids, a non-profit for promoting new methods of improving health and safety of young people.

Cyberbullying is an equally serious threat that's underemphasized, Ybarra said. Some 3%-7% of young people are targeted by frequent bullying on the Internet and in text messaging more than once a month. Youth targeted by Internet harassment are more likely to report social problems, depression, being beat up, and having things stolen from them.

Young people are often resistant to sexual solicitations, boyd said. They lump sexual solicitations with online marketing, as nuisances that they delete and move on.

Exposure to explicit sexual images is normal part of growing up for young people, the panelists said. For most, it's no big deal. But some find it very disturbing, in part because the exposure is unsolicited and unexpected, and in part because it's more extreme than in the past. In the past, young people could anticipate exposure to pornography because other kids were showing it to them. Now, it's "ambush exposure," he said.

"To be honest, I think there's reason to be concerned about the kind of impact that this may have on this small group of kids who report it's negative. But we really don't know enough about it," Finkelhor said.

The host of the panel, the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, is an Internet industry association whose mission is to work with lawmakers on Internet issues. boyd posted a transcript and videos of the panel to her blog.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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