Do you think you know the key points regarding internet safety for children and young people? Jenni Whitehead says that a recent report challenging current thinking on the related dangers suggests not, and offers some suggestions of advice for young people

A new report examines and challenges present concerns about children and young people’s use of the internet and the education programmes promoted by many organisations as part of prevention strategies.

Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims: Myths, Realities, and Implications for Prevention and Treatment is an extensive piece of research published by the University of New Hampshire. The authors (Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, Kimberly J Mitchell and Michele L Ybarra), are all well-known researchers in the field of child protection and are part of a team of people who run the Crimes Against Children website.

The paper draws on numerous research studies from all over the world but predominately from the States. In this article I summarise the main findings, but I would recommend it as essential reading to anyone involved in internet safety training.

The study examines present thinking about preventative models of internet safety teaching and draws on research about how children and young people use the internet and how sexual offenders target their victims.

Over the last few years there has been a growing concern that children and young people are at great risk from child molesters who would use the information posted by young people on websites such as YouTube and MySpace and through chatrooms. A stereotype of the internet predator has developed as someone who will use trickery, threats and sometimes violence to assault children offline that they have targeted online. However, the report paints a more complex picture.

How offenders use the internet
The report found that most internet-initiated sex crimes involve adult men who use the internet to meet and seduce underage adolescents into sexual encounters:

  • Sexual offenders use communications such as instant messages, email, and chatrooms to meet and develop intimate relationships with victims.
  • In the great majority of cases, victims are aware they are conversing online with adults.
  • Offenders rarely deceive victims about their sexual interests. Sex is usually broached online, and most victims who meet offenders face to face go to such meetings expecting to engage in sexual activity.
  • When deception does occur, it often involves promises of love and romance by offenders whose intentions are primarily sexual.

Many victims profess love or close feelings for their abuser – in one of the studies quoted 73% of victims who had face-to-face sexual encounters with offenders did so more than once. Most offenders are charged with crimes that involve sexual activity with victims who are too young to consent to sexual intercourse with adults, as opposed to forced rape or buggery.

What makes young people vulnerable?
Many of the stories in the press have suggested that it is young, naive and inexperienced children who are most vulnerable to online child molesters. However, a number of research studies quoted in this report found that the majority of victims tend to be between 13 and 17 years old.

This age group spans some important developmental shifts but compared to studies of offline child sexual abuse the age span is quite restrictive. Offline abuse is perpetrated against 13- to 17-year-olds but also includes many more victims under the age of 12. This distinction is important for developing effective prevention strategies.

The study reports that the notion of 12- and 13-year-olds as vulnerable because of naivety about the internet is inaccurate. It suggests that by early adolescence internet users generally understand the social complexities of the internet at levels comparable to those of adults when answering questions about good and bad things that can happen online and the need to exercise care.
As children grow up and gain experience online they engage in more complex and interactive internet use, and this puts them at greater risk than younger children who use the internet in less interactive ways.

One study quoted suggests that 15- to 17-year-olds are most prone to using the internet to take risks involving privacy and contact with unknown people.

Vulnerability because of naivety about sex is also questioned. The reality of adolescent sexual development includes growing sexual curiosity, knowledge, and experience, as youths make the transition from childhood to adulthood. Many studies have found that even in early adolescence most youths are quite aware of, interested in, and beginning to experiment with, sex and by mid-adolescence most have had or have fantasies about romantic partners.

Youthful vulnerability, healthy romantic notions and healthy curiosity about sex should be understood as part of what puts young people at risk from sexual predators.

Isolation and inexperience

Most young people explore romantic relationships within their peer group in view of their peer group, with adults looking on. The young person who explores these issues online is more likely to be doing so in isolation and in secret out of sight of family members and outside the context of the peer group. This isolation may lead to relationships that form more quickly, involve greater self-disclosure and develop with greater intensity than face-to-face relationships among peers. Youths in their early and mid-teens often struggle with emotional control and when they are drawn into online relationships that include disclosures about sexual matters, the feelings that are generated may be particularly powerful and difficult to handle for youths just beginning to experience sexual desires.

On top of this, intense romantic and sexual involvements during early and mid-adolescence are associated with a range of risky behaviours and negative outcomes.
The factors that make youths vulnerable to seduction by online molesters are complex and related to immaturity, inexperience, and the impulsiveness with which some youths respond to and explore normal sexual urges.

This study quotes a number of studies that report that while many young people engage in interaction with unknown people online most are not at risk for sexual victimisation. Online sexual offenders often seduce youths by using online communications to establish trust and confidence, introducing talk of sex, and then arranging to meet youths in person for sexual encounters. Youths whose online interactions include sending personal information to and talking about sex with unknown people are more likely to encounter individuals who make online sexual advances and then try to move them offline. However, young people who send personal information and talk about sex are not typical youth internet users. The majority of youths refrain from these behaviours.

Interactive online behaviours

Visiting chatrooms is an interactive behaviour that allows for immediate and direct communication. Many chatrooms geared towards teenagers are known for explicit sexual talk and obscene language and this may attract online predators. There is some evidence to suggest that adolescents who visit chatrooms regularly are more likely to be experiencing problems offline including:

  • problems with their parents
  • sadness, loneliness, or depression
  • histories of sexual abuse
  • histories of risky behaviour.

It may be easier for these young people to interact with unknown people online and chatrooms may compensate for problems they have forming relationships offline.

One of the studies quoted in this report found that most online sexual offenders met their victims in chatrooms.

Young people with histories of sexual and physical abuse are known to be more vulnerable to further abuse, and online predators may target these young people. Traumatic childhood histories are often associated with risk-taking behaviours, including risky sexual behaviour.Some young people may be seeking attention and affection not available to them offline.

Posting personal information

Posting personal information has been highlighted in prevention programmes as putting young people at risk of being targeted by predators, but this report suggests that posting such information does not, by itself, place young people at risk. The report quotes a number of studies that show that the majority of young people who use the internet have posted information about themselves and one study found that more than half of the young people interviewed said they had posted personal information including: name, address, age, photos and telephone numbers.

The study found that while young people who posted personal information about themselves were more likely to be contacted by unknown people of all ages, they were not more likely to be subjected to aggressive sexual solicitation online.

Young people who post sexual images of themselves were found to be more at risk of aggressive sexual solicitation but this behaviour was not found to be prevalent across young people.

Social networking sites and blogs

A lot of publicity has been given to the potential risks of social networking sites, fears that sexual offenders would target children and young people using the information posted on such sites. The evidence drawn together in this report does not support the view that offenders are more likely to target and stalk young people who use social networking sites. Some young people may be seeking to make new relationships through social networking sites, but even they are not more likely to have uncomfortable, scary or aggressive sexual solicitation than others online.

Blogs often include very personal information, but this report suggests that those who write blogs are not more likely to have uncomfortable or scary contacts than other young people online.
Online molesters do not appear to be stalking unsuspecting victims, but rather continuing to seek youths who are susceptible to seduction.

Indications of higher risk
The report suggests that where young people engage in a number of risky behaviours they are at increased risk of aggressive sexual solicitation. The behaviours include:

  • using chatrooms to develop relationships with unknown people
  • talking to unknown people about sex
  • having unknown people on a buddy list
  • seeking pornography online
  • posting sexual images and personal details.

Young people who engage in risky behaviour offline also appear to be at greater risk of being targeted.

Boys are victimised too

About 25% of internet sex crimes are committed against male victims. Boys who are questioning their sexual orientation may be at higher risk as they may use the internet interactively to explore this. It is recognised that young people who are thinking about their own sexual orientation are likely to have fewer avenues to discuss these issues, and may use the internet in the belief that they can do so without running the risk of rejection from friends and family.

Main findings

This report tells us that it is not the internet itself that is dangerous to young people, but how young people engage with it that can put them at risk. Teenagers are the primary victims of internet sex crimes and common teenage vulnerabilities include: interest in sex, romance, adventure, risk taking and independence.

Those involved in education programmes need to make sure that they give young people an understanding of the risks involved in talking to unknown adults online and help them question why an adult would be taking such an interest in people much younger than themselves. They need to help young people to understand that predatory adults will attempt to manipulate them into believing that their relationship is romantic and has a real chance of developing further offline.
Parents can be helpful, but the research suggests that the most vulnerable young people are ones who are having conflicts with their parents. So we need to reach teenagers directly with messages that are credible. This means not talking down to them; being familiar with their culture; acknowledging their familiarity with the internet; and respecting their developmentally appropriate aspirations for independence.

This report is well worth reading in full, and for anyone setting up internet safety training for young people, parents or professionals, I would describe it as essential reading.

Access the full report

Advice for trainers from the Crimes Against Children Research Centre
Crimes Against Children provide a very useful advice sheet for both internet safety trainers and for young people. The advice for trainers includes:

Don’t say:

  • ‘All internet predators pretend to be other youth to lure victims into meetings.’

In the vast majority of internet sex crimes against young people, offenders did tell the young person their age. The offenders seduced young people by being understanding, sympathetic, flattering, and by appealing to young people’s interest in romance, sex and adventure.

  • ‘Internet predators lure young children to meetings where they abduct, rape or even murder.’

Virtually all cases of internet sex crimes involve young people above the age of 12. Most victims are ages 13 to 15. Younger children have much less interest than teens in interacting with and going to meet unknown persons they have encountered online. There have been cases of abduction, rape and murder but these are very rare. In most encounters, victims meet offenders voluntarily and expect sexual activity, because they feel love or affection for the person they have been corresponding with. Typically they have sex with the adult on multiple occasions.

  • ‘Never give out personal information online.’

Research has shown that simply posting or sending some personal information online does not put youth at risk. However, giving out very personal or sexually oriented information, looking for romantic relationships online, and inviting contact from lots of people, does.

  • ‘Don’t have a social networking site or a personal webpage.’

Research suggests that personal webpages are not in themselves dangerous. Rather, the danger is when young people use these vehicles to portray themselves as interested in sex, romance, risk-taking, and open to interacting with people they don’t know.

Do say:

  • ‘Internet offenders manipulate young people into criminal sexual relationships by appealing to young people’s desire to be appreciated, understood, take risks, and find out about sex.’
  • ‘Although most victims go voluntarily to meet and have sex with internet offenders, these are nonetheless serious sex crimes that take advantage of inexperienced and vulnerable young people.’
  • ‘Internet offenders target teens who are willing to talk online about sex.’
  • ‘Be very careful what you do with social networking sites or personal webpages.’

It is useful to remind young people that many things they post for their friends may end up being viewed by others, and can prompt contact that could become a problem.

  • ‘Boys can be criminally victimised online, too.’

Research suggests that one quarter of victims of online offenders are boys. Frequently, these are boys with sexual orientation issues who get into trouble while looking online for help and understanding they can’t get at home or at school. This is a hard topic to talk about openly and sensitively, but parents, educators, youth and law enforcement officials need to understand that youth with sexual orientation issues are a particularly vulnerable group.

  • ‘Don’t let friends influence your better judgement when you are online together.’

Research suggests youth take more risks when they are online together with other youth.