How the Honesty of Online Predators Makes Them Easy to Spot
Debunking the myths and misconceptions of how sexual predators operate.
Posted Jun 29, 2020
We have all watched the documentaries. Authorities apprehending adult predators arriving to meet an underage victim, really a law enforcement decoy. And we are painfully aware of the prevalence of the practice by sex offenders of trolling the internet, making contact with potential victims.
How are they doing it? Obviously, if we understand their methodology, we are better equipped to detect them online before they attempt to make contact in person. But can we?
I have spent many years as a sex crimes prosecutor. We can in fact detect and prevent sexual predators from infiltrating the online world of our young people if we know what to look for, where to look, and what to do with what we see. Research reveals some of the red flags.
Debunking Myths and Misconceptions
Janis Wolak et al. (2010), in a piece aptly entitled “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims,” examined this issue.[i] They begin by noting that there is much publicity about how online predators use violence and trickery to lure children, but that much of this is inaccurate. They explain how instead, sexual cyber predators and their victims more closely resemble a model of statutory rape—where an adult seduces an underage victim, usually a teenager, which is a very different scenario than pedophile-child contact or sexual assault.
Wolak et al. note that understanding this difference is important because it informs our approach to prevention, including strategies used by parents as well as teenagers themselves in terms of how much personal information they share online. They recognize that prevention strategies are often developmentally appropriate in the sense that they inform older adolescents about the danger and illegality of sexual relationships with adults and younger children with the additional information about how to avoid such contact to begin with.
Wolak et al. recognize that some young people may be at higher risk of falling prey to a cyber predator by virtue of their own backgrounds, which might include having been sexually abused, concerned about their own sexuality, or with a history of online risky behavior. They acknowledge how mental health practitioners can contribute here in terms of both intervention and input regarding the relational dynamics between victims and perpetrators in a range of settings.
Predators Do Not Disguise Their Age
Contrary to stereotype, victims of cyber predators often know they are talking to adults. Wolak et al. cite research noting that in one study, only 5% of perpetrators masqueraded as teenagers when meeting potential online victims, and they did not disguise their interest in sex. To the contrary, they usually brought up the subject, and victims who agreed to meet offenders offline intended to engage in sexual contact. Further, many victims admitted having amorous feelings for the perpetrators, and in the study they cite, 73% of victims who met the perpetrators in person did so more than once.
When there is deception involved, Wolak et al. note that it often involves offenders falsely promising romance and love, when their intentions are mainly sexual. Accordingly, crimes charged as a result of such contact include statutory rape-type charges, reflecting the criminal nature of sexual contact between adults and minors which do not require elements of violence or force.
Victim Age Range
Wolak et al. note that victims are not as young as many media accounts would have us believe. In the study they cite, they note that 99% of victims of sex crimes initiated on the internet were between the ages of 13 to 17; and none were younger than 12 years old. They distinguish this pattern from in-person child molestation, where a much larger percentage of victims are under 12 years old.
Wolak et al. make some very important age-related points regarding victim vulnerability. As a foundational matter, they disavow the stereotype of young people being naïve about the internet. Instead, they note that children ages 12 to 13 understand the internet as well as many adults do in terms of appreciating the risks, types of online social interaction, and the need to take precautionary measures.
They note that as children get older and spend more time online, they progress to a higher level of interactivity—which accordingly puts them at greater risk than that of younger children who do not use the internet as much—or for the same reasons. Here, they cite prior research, finding that in a sample of adolescents between the ages of 12 to 17, the 15- to 17-year-olds were the ones most likely to engage in risky behavior such as having contact with strangers or compromising privacy.
Although many young people do not share personal information online, much less talk about sex, it is important to appreciate how easy it is for predators to communicate with those who do or who are receptive to that discussion. We can use this information to be proactive about protecting our youth.
[i] Wolak, Janis, David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Michele L. Ybarra. 2010. “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims: Myths, Realities, and Implications for Prevention and Treatment.” Psychology of Violence 1 (S): 13–35. doi:10.1037/2152-0828.1.S.13.