by Anne Collier
David Finkelhor, one of the US's top experts in online youth victimization, called her "Jenna" at the briefing on Capitol Hill where he was presenting his research. In what he described as a fairly typical predation case….
Jenna was 13 and "from a divorced family, frequented sex-oriented chatrooms, had the screenname 'Evilgirl.' There she met a guy who, after a number of conversations admitted he was 45. He flattered her, sent her gifts, jewelry. They talked about intimate things. And eventually he drove across several states to meet her for sex on several occasions in motel rooms. When he was arrested, in her company, she was reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement authorities."
The picture Dr. Finkelhor – director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire – was painting as he related this actual case was very different from the impression most of us have somehow arrived at about sex crimes against kids on the Internet.
It concerns him, he said, that somehow the American public has gotten the idea that criminals are tricking kids into disclosing personal information by pretending to be peers and lying about their sexual motives, then stalking, abducting, and raping them. Parents deserve to know that that is not what’s going on.
Finkelhor's research shows that, "in a representative sample of law-enforcement cases, only 5% of these [online child victimization] cases actually involved violence. Only 3% involved an abduction." Almost no deception was involved. "Only 5% of the offenders concealed the fact that they were adults from their victims; 80% were quite explicit about their sexual intentions."
Here's his conclusion: "These are not violent sex crimes. They are criminal seductions that take advantage of common teenage vulnerabilities…." Let me interrupt him just to say that here is where parents' and other caregivers' focus needs to be – teenage vulnerabilities. Finkelhor continues: "The offenders play on teens' desires for romance, adventure, sexual information, understanding." Note that last word: “understanding.” This is a question that long predates the Internet: how to make sure teens with a lot of stresses and variables in their lives don’t turn to strangers, online or offline, for understanding, sympathy, or escape?
"Jenna" thought she was in love with the man she was with when he was arrested. Finkelhor says she didn’t want to cooperate with the police. And this was not the first time she'd met with him for a sexual encounter ("in 73% of these crimes the youth go to meet the offender on multiple occasions for multiple sexual encounters," Finkelhor told policymakers). And this is the typical scenario for teen online victimization.
Seeing these facts, a lot of parents can breathe a sigh of relief, I think. The vast majority of teenagers simply don't match Jenna's high-risk profile and behavior. But here's where psychologists, social workers, and educators who do work with young risk-takers and run-aways come in. This emerging reality is calling on them to fold the Internet into their screening and treatment programs.
And we all need to be addressing teens more (and parents less) with our "prevention messages," Finkelhor suggests. "So much of what we've been doing has been directed primarily at parents, but parents' credibility and authority have worn thin,” he said, “among the kids who we found to be most at risk for this kind of victimization. These are kids who have substantial conflict situations in their family." In the Q&A period following presentations, Dr. Finkelhor said he thought this group only represented "probably 5%" of online teens.”
There is a bottom line for parents, though, now that we understand the facts better. The message to our kids is really not the old "don't give out personal information" or "keep your social-networking profile private." The most basic message is: "Don't talk about sex online with strangers." If they're not doing that, they're going to be just fine online – as far as "predators" are concerned, anyway. Then there's the peer-to-peer problem, cyberbullying. But that's another story….
* "Just the Facts About Online Youth Victimization" – the May 3 briefing presented at the Capitol by the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee in Washington. You'll find links on this page to a video of the whole session as well as a transcript in pdf format.
* "Predators vs. cyberbullies: Reality check"
* “Internet Safety Line: We Must Teach Our Children How To Make Intelligent Choices When Using The Web” in the Hartford Courant