The stereotype of a pedophile masquerading as a teen on the Internet to stalk naive young victims is not only false, it's also distracting parents, educators and policy makers from addressing the sex crimes that are being initiated via the Internet, according to a new paper.
Almost all online-initiated sex crimes involve adults openly seducing teenaged victims into sexual relationships, according to data culled from two surveys of 3,000 Internet users aged between 10 and 17 and one involving more than 2,000 U.S. federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies, most specializing in sex crimes against minors.
Internet offenders pretended to be teenagers in only 5 per cent of the crimes studied by researchers at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. They also found that nearly 75 per cent of victims who met offenders face to face did so more than once. Very few cases involved violence, stalking or abduction.
As well, none of the victims were under 12 years of age, a finding that contrasts sharply with conventional, "offline" child molestation, which includes a large proportion of victims younger than 12, said sociologist David Finkelhor, the author of the paper.
While the online reality may be less violent than imagined, Dr. Finkelhor and his co-authors say it should be of no less concern. Non-violent statutory rape is a difficult crime for both health professionals and victims to recognize, due to the focus on child victims, violence and deception.
"These are serious crimes," he said. "We think adults who try to recruit teenagers for sexual relationships are a serious kind of criminal. But it's a different dynamic and we need to understand the dynamic if we want to prevent it."
The paper, based on a synthesis of research emanating from the centre over several years, was published yesterday in the February/March issue of the American Psychological Association's journal American Psychologist.
The authors say it's premature to talk about the Internet as an established facilitator of sex crimes outside of the possession and distribution of child pornography.
"It's not clear that the Internet is spawning a new wave of crime, Dr. Finkelhor said.
Yet, he and his co-authors do make a number of prevention and public policy recommendations aimed at reaching teens identified as high risk.
Posting personal information and belonging to social networking sites are not particularly dangerous activities by themselves, they say.
But teens who engage in four or more behaviours, such as maintaining buddy lists with strangers, seeking pornography, and even being rude or nasty online, were much more likely than their peers to receive online solicitations.
Teens who respond to such solicitations tend to be risk takers with emotional and interpersonal problems and a poor relationship with family. Boys who are gay or questioning their sexuality may be more susceptible to Internet-initiated sex crimes than other teens.
Typically, the teens learn very quickly that they are interacting with an adult, and sex is very much on their minds, Dr. Finkelhor said.
"And at this point, they don't turn it off. They keep going. They're interested. There's something they want to explore," he said. "They're thinking this is a friend or someone they might be in love with or someone who is offering them an adventure. They go off to meet this person and, surprisingly, have sex on multiple occasions."
So, the challenge with these potential victims goes beyond simple parenting tacks.
"Unfortunately, this is a group of young people who in many cases are alienated from their parents and don't have good relationships with their families, so to rely exclusively on parents to guide the supervision and communicate the important messages to kids is probably not enough."
The focus, Dr. Finkelhor said, should instead be on talking to teens about the relationships they're developing, what constitutes a healthy relationship and why sex with underage adolescents is wrong.
"Those are harder messages to get out than the ones we've been saying," he said. "These involve tricky subjects and acknowledging that young people are interested in romance and sex and that they may take risks."