The researchers found that most people think of Internet predators as adults who deceive their young victims by pretending to be kids themselves so they can lure them into meetings to abduct them and then forcibly raping them.
Less Than Five Percent Use DeceptionBut that description fits less that five percent of real online predators, the researchers found. Instead, they don't hide the fact that they are adults and they target teens, not young children.
They carefully develop the trust and confidence of the teen. Eventually, the teens see the relationship as a romantic one or as a sexual adventure. They target teens who have experienced sexual or physical abuse, have problems in their family and who are risk-takers online and off.
MySpace, Facebook Not the ProblemThe study also found that teen participation in social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook does not increase their risk of being victimized. Talking online about sex to people they do not know increases the risk, the researchers say.
"Most Internet-initiated sex crimes involve adult men who are open about their interest in sex," lead author of the study Janis Wolak said in a news release. "The offenders use instant messages, email and chat rooms to meet and develop intimate relationships with their victims. In most of the cases, the victims are aware that they are talking online with adults."
"A majority of the offenders are charged with crimes such as statutory rape, that involve non-forcible sexual activity with adolescent victims who are too young to consent to sexual intercourse with adults," she added.
Violence, Abduction Very RareThe study also found:
- Internet offenders pretended to be teenagers in only 5 percent of the crimes studied by researchers.
- Nearly 75 percent of victims who met offenders face-to-face did so more than once.
- Online sex offenders are rarely violent and cases involving stalking or abduction are very rare.
- Youth who engaged in four or more risky online behaviors were much more likely to report receiving online sexual solicitations. Those risky behaviors included: maintaining buddy lists that included strangers, discussing sex online with people they did not know in person and being rude or nasty online.
- Boys who are gay or are questioning their sexuality may be more susceptible to Internet-initiated sex crimes than other populations. Researchers found boys were the victims in nearly one-quarter of criminal cases.
Talk With Your ChildrenWolak said that current educational efforts about online safety may not be effective. She recommends that parents have frank discussions about the inappropriateness of romantic relationships with adults.
The study, "Predators and Their Victims: Myths, Realities, and Implications for Prevention and Treatment," was published in the February/March 2008 issue of American Psychologist.