For Parents: Internet Predators

Under Montana law, a person commits the offense of child sexual abuse if the person “knowingly, by any means of communication, including electronic communication, persuades, entices, counsels, or procures a child under 16 years of age or a person the offender believes to be a child under 16 years of age to engage in sexual conduct, actual or simulated.”

Online Stranger Contact

According to researchers of the Pew Internet & American Life Project (2007), the number of teens who have felt uncomfortable as a result of an online stranger contact is relatively small; however, whether teens intend to initiate contact with a stranger or not, certain online activities are more likely to bring about that contact. Teens who maintain profiles on social networking sites and who post photos of themselves online are likely to experience stranger contacts regardless of the information they share (e.g., first or last name, school name or email address) or whether they set their profiles to private or not. Girls are more likely to be contacted by strangers than boys.

  • 39% of girls and 24% of boys between the ages of 12 and 17 have been contacted online by someone with no connection to them or their friends
  • 11% of girls and 4% of boys were contacted by a stranger who made them feel scared or uncomfortable

Contrary to popular thought, teens using social networking sites report fewer scary or uncomfortable contacts (21%) than teens who do not have an online profile (28%). However, nearly half (45%) of social networking teens report using the sites to make new friends – to connect with people they do not know.  It is possible that teens who are familiar with social networking sites may accept unwanted contacts as a relatively minor, inevitable annoyance and therefore not report them.

The greater concern is that some teens portray themselves on social networking sites or in chatrooms as interested in risky behaviors and interacting with people they do not know. According to a recent study, youth are five times more likely to report sexual solicitation or harassment if they engage in three of the following risky behaviors:

  • interacting online with unknown people
  • having unknown people on a buddy list
  • talking online to unknown people about sex
  • seeking pornography online
  • being rude or nasty online

Youth who engaged in four of the risky behaviors were 11 times more likely to report sexual solicitation or harassment. The study found more reason to be concerned about the consensual relationships that are initiated online than the extremely rare Internet-facilitated sexual assault. It suggested that parents need to provide:

“…developmentally appropriate prevention strategies that target youths directly and acknowledge normal adolescent interests in romance and sex…. These should provide younger adolescents with awareness and avoidance skills while educating older youths about the pitfalls of sexual relationships with adults and their criminal nature.”
Janis Wolak, et al. “Online “Predators” and their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention and Treatment” (PDF) 2008

Typical Steps in Online Grooming

Internet predators seek out others online to harm them. Most Internet predators do what is called “grooming.” Many Internet predators are adults who have experience building the trust they need in their victims. They are very manipulative and can appear as extremely sincere, providing information and pictures that seem legitimate but are often false and portray a completely different person.

  • Grooming begins when a predator finds a target online, usually by accessing personal information gathered from a variety of searches. They find out as much as they can, eventually developing a “profile” of their targets.
  • Predators typically make contact with their targets by initiating online conversations in chat rooms or social networking sites. They usually try to appear as though they have things in common with their target.
  • Over time, the communication moves from public sites to more private conversations, like instant messaging (IM) and email.
  • Sexually explicit photos are often introduced to desensitize the person being groomed, thus allowing the target to become gradually comfortable with the images over time.
  • The predator gains the victim’s trust and friendship, while pulling the victim away from family and friends.
  • The most dangerous predators aim to meet their victims in person.

[blockquote]If you feel your child is in danger, do not ignore it. Contact local law enforcement and the CyberTipline online or at 1-800-843-5678 immediately.[/blockquote]

  • If you feel your child is in danger, do not ignore it.
  • Contact local law enforcement immediately. Information that could help law enforcement is often time-sensitive and, the sooner you call, the sooner they can investigate the problem.
  • In addition, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline online or at 1-800-843-5678.
  • Save all of the email, text messages, documents, chat logs or whatever else you have that may be helpful in an investigation.

It is important to let your child know that he or she is not in trouble. Open communication is extremely critical in this situation. Responding with punishment may discourage the child from reporting important details about the circumstances. Often, even making the computer off limits may be viewed as a form of punishment, in turn breaking down communication. If possible, work with the child whenever he or she is online, and notify a school counselor of the situation.