“Don’t talk to strangers!” was the mantra of parents, trying to keep their children safe from potential “predators,” be it kidnappers, so-called pedophiles, or merely those up to no good.
But now in the internet age, in which American young people have access to the internet not only in their own homes but also through the phones seemingly attached to their bodies, those potentially dangerous strangers have access which is freer—and perhaps more dangerous—than ever before. Predators can now communicate anonymously through chat rooms, social networking sites, and instant messaging. Approximately 1 in 7 (13%) youth Internet users report receiving unwanted sexual solicitations (NSOPW, “Facts, Myths, Statistics”).
NetSmartz.org (with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children), says
Contrary to popular belief, most online predators are not pedophiles. Pedophiles target pre-pubescent children, while online predators typically target adolescents who engage in risky online behavior.
The National Sex Offender Public Website adds,
Predators seek youths vulnerable to seduction, including those with histories of sexual or physical abuse, those who post sexually provocative photos/videos, and those who talk about sex with unknown people online.
The popularity of sites such as Facebook and Twitter, in which teens often share pictures, their moods/thoughts/desires, and even phone numbers and addresses, make it much easier for predators to exploit their vulnerabilities. Sharing personal information online is one of the top risky online behaviors, but 50% of teens say they post personal information online (InternetSafety101.org). Predators typically spend time building a “friendship” with their target, perhaps 80% of the time using the information gleaned from social networking sites (InternetSafety101.org).
This “friendship” building is a part of what is called “grooming,” in which the predator tries to gain the trust of the teen or child, perhaps even sending gifts.
Internet Safety 101 explains the grooming process:
Typically, the goal of this grooming process is to build up enough trust and confidence with the child to be able to initiate a face-to-face meeting alone. If the predator is not online but somehow connected to the child’s life, the grooming process typically also involves gaining the trust of the child’s family.
From this trusting relationship, the predator will often ask for pictures of the child—or send sexual pictures of themselves. In more than one-quarter (27%) of incidents, solicitors asked youths for sexual photographs of themselves (NSOPW, “Facts, Myths, Statistics”). Predators may also send pornography. Eventually, the predator will typically ask to meet in person. If accepted, this meeting can lead to a nightmare.
Most minors who become victims of internet-initiated sex crimes meet the predator willingly. A national survey reveals some striking information about the interactions between Internet predators and their juvenile victims:
The majority of victims (67%) were children between the ages of 12 and 15.
75% of the victims were girls.
The most common first encounter of a predator with a victim took place in an online chat room (76%).
Predators used less deception to befriend their online victims than experts had thought. Only 5% of the predators told their victims that they were in the same age-group as the victims. Most offenders told the victims that they were older males seeking sexual relations. (InternetSafety101.org says that 80% of online offenders against youth were eventually explicit with youth about their sexual intentions.)
Reports such as this one show that many of our youth are not aware of the dangers of their risky internet practices or of allowing risky online relationships to develop. The adults in teens’ lives must talk about safety on the internet and ask about their online activities and interactions.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How can you encourage safe internet behavior with the youth in your circle of influence (children, grandchildren, students, youth group members, etc.)?
Why do you think risky online behavior, particularly of a sexual nature, is so enticing to American teens? Do you think they don’t know it is dangerous? Or do you think they simply ignore the danger—or enjoy it?
Why do you think our teens and children crave the attention they receive from predators online? What steps can/should we make to build healthy, meaningful relationships with the youth in our lives? Do you think this will help the problem?
How can we instill a wise and healthy use of the internet into teens? How can we encourage them to discerningly build healthy relationships—and not just teach them to be paranoid about everyone they meet?
NetSmartz.org says one of the best preventative measures parents can take is to talk with their children openly and often about internet safety and the potential dangers of online predators. Ask specific questions about what they know of online predators, what they would do if someone asked to meet face-to-face, and if anyone has tried talking to them about inappropriate things online in the past. Creating open lines of communication as well as training youth in internet safety is essential.
Meeting face-to-face with someone a teen first met online can be extremely risky—and should never be done without the knowledge and approval of a parent or guardian. Teach the children in your care about revealing too much personal information or posting inappropriate videos or photos.
Although the dangers are apparent, teens today still willingly meet online acquaintances who turn out to be sexual predators. We must be talking to teens about this frankly. We must make the appropriate safe guards and initiate important conversations on this issue. We cannot fall prey to the ‘it wouldn’t happen to me’ syndrome, thus leaving our children at risk.
Internet Safety 101. “Predators 101.” Enough Is Enough. Retrieved online Aug. 5, 2014.