A few years ago, the popular NBC television show Dateline aired a special called To Catch a Predator, using hidden cameras to film a “parade” of men who had approached teenage girls online for a sexual liaison. The men thought they were coming to the teenager’s house when her parents were not home. After the men entered the house, eagerly hoping to make good on their online discussions, the host of the TV show confronted the predators, all the while filming their reactions as they realized their faces were being broadcast to the world (NBC.com, “To Catch a Predator,”).
In reality, the teenage girl was a fictitious character created for the sole purpose of luring men to the home in order to demonstrate to the television audience the dangers young people faced online. This decoy, first created by an adult who placed a fabricated profile of a clearly underage girl on a social networking site, entered into chat rooms posing as the girl in order to engage adult men into sexual conversations. To Catch a Predator was a ratings success, with over 40 million people watching the show.
The program contributed to the already prevalent portrayal of the Internet as a place where sexual predators lurk, ready to pounce on unsuspecting and naïve teenagers. Even today, media coverage quotes lawmakers such as the FBI and the police saying, “For every guy we catch, there are more out there” or “Unsupervised access to the Internet by a 14-year-old is far more dangerous than going to any park in the city of San Diego.” (“10News Accompanies FBI Sting to Catch Online Sex Predators,” 2010)
Given the extensive media coverage, it is not surprising that many parents worry about their children’s access to the Internet. Yet keeping adolescents away from the Internet, and popular applications, such as social networking sites, is difficult. Policy makers, faced with the task of regulating the companies that provide services allowing children on such “dangerous platforms,” demanded accountability. For example, MySpace was ordered to get tougher on keeping children off their site, and hardware companies scrambled to create of features for parental control of the technology.
But what is the truth about sexual predators approaching children on-line? Is this a problem that children frequently face, and if so, how many children actually go the extra step of meeting someone offline? Back when Dateline aired, a smaller percentage of the population could access the Internet (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010). Because technology changes so quickly, research was scarce, and the true magnitude of the problem was not entirely clear. It is true that the Internet offers many opportunities for people to interact with strangers and to conceal one’s identity. Young children might not understand that the person they chat with online could be lying about their identity. Given all the examples in the popular press, perhaps the fears of sexual predators are real.
A task force comprised of academics, lawyers and industry leaders came together to quickly evaluate the available evidence from law enforcement records and published academic studies. They determined that sexual predation on minors by adults does happen on-line, however in most of the cases, a post pubescent youth was aware they were meeting an adult male for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity (Internet Technical Safety Task Force, 2008). The majority of the victims (81%) were older teens, 14-17 years of age, who were likely to also exhibit risky behaviors in their offline lives. In fact, the psychosocial makeup of the youth and their family dynamics were better predictors of risk than the use of a certain kind of media. Moreover, the most frequent online threats that minors reported were bullying and harassment, not sexual predation. Finally, the percentage of youth who received sexual solicitation actually declined from 2000 to 2006, precisely when access to the Internet was growing.
Another review of the research about online “predators” and their victims was written by research scientists at the Crimes Against Children Research Center (Wolak, Finkelhor, & Ybarra, 2008). After press reports improperly referred to statistics reported by the authors on previously published study, they wanted to set the record straight and to provide mental health professionals who work with youth an accurate portrayal of online risks. They had conducted telephone interviews of youth age 10-17 and law enforcement investigators of Internet-initiated sex crimes. They reported that adult males did sometimes use the Internet to meet and seduce underage adolescents into sexual encounters, but that most of these adolescents were aware they were conversing with adults. The children who met adults offline were also aware they were meeting them for sex, and 73% of these underage victims met the adult more than once. They also found that Internet initiated sex crimes comprised approximately 7% of total sex crimes, and of these 7%, 95% were non-forcible. The total number of forcible internet-initiated sex crimes against a minor in one year in the entire US was thus 25. As a comparison number of another critical problem facing US children, the number of children who are food insecure (i.e. hungry or on the edge of hunger) in 2007 was 17.2 million (“Food Research and Action Center,” 2007).
The bottom line is that the highest risk correlate for getting together with an adult offline, who was first met online, for the purposes of sexual activity, has nothing to do with going online. The best predictor appears to be how the child acts offline; any child exhibiting psychosocial problems at home or in the classroom is a much better candidate for this kind of problem than someone who spends many hours on the Internet, but otherwise seems to be a happy well-adjusted child. The old advice to “know your child” turns out to be true.
As published research demonstrated that the most children faced little risk of being abducted by strangers, media portrayals of the “epidemic” began to dissipate. As of 2007, NBC stopped airing new shows of To Catch a Predator. Although the show is currently readily available on YouTube and the problem of online sexual predators is still something a few parents fear, more parents now grapple with other fears regarding their children’s online behavior such as cyber bullying, multi-tasking and whatever new fear lies on the horizon!