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Children's Voice Article, January 2002

How Safe Are Our Children on the Internet?

by Peter Slavin

"I can go online as a 14-year-old, and can get a sexual solicitation in less than a minute."
    -Sgt. Andy Russell, police investigator

"There's a motivated offender community out there that uses online technology to find kids for sex. That we do know, because we've locked up a lot of them."
    -Mike Medaris, Justice Department official

It happened on the Internet.*
  • A 12-year-old girl said people told her sexual things they were doing and asked her to play with herself.

  • A 13-year-old boy said a girl asked him how big his privates were and wanted him to masturbate.

  • A 15-year-old girl said an older man kept "bothering" her. He asked if she was a virgin and wanted to meet her.
There is widespread fear that young people's facility with computers has introduced a new danger into their lives. Kids, for example, can walk innocently into Internet chat rooms, like "Dads and Daughters," not knowing they are hangouts for men seeking sex with young girls. The child molester is imagined to have moved from the playground virtually into the home in the form of calculating adults, hiding behind an electronic cloak of invisibility and phony identities, who befriend children to lure them into sexual encounters.

There is some truth to this picture, but it is far from complete. First of all, the extent of the threat seems to be exaggerated in the media. Compared with other ways that young people are sexually victimized, cases of actual liaisons or assaults originating on the Internet appear to be uncommon, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire.

Second, the chief targets of online sexual solicitations are not children but adolescents, often troubled kids whose problems make them vulnerable to a sexual liaison.* Poor judgment or neediness may lead them to join in sexual activities willingly.

Third, a significant portion of those exploiting juveniles are other young people.* Just as dating can be dangerous for young people, so too they face risks from their peers online.

In short, the problem is not simply one of pedophiles preying on young children.

Although there does not seem to be reason for alarm, the threat to young people online is hard to assess because of the lack of good data. Sexual offenses generally against young people are greatly underreported, Finkelhor says, and the only scientific survey of online risks to young people was handicapped by unavoidable problems. For example, since identities are so easy to conceal on the Internet, those soliciting juveniles may not have been the age or even the gender they claimed to be. That 12-year-old girl could really be a 40-year-old man.

Still, young people make up one-third of those using the Internet-an estimated 24 million minors in 1999*-many logging on for hours a day, leaving no question that the opportunities for sexual enticement are great. Kids may be asked to talk about sex or be asked intimate questions. They may be sent pictures of people having sex. They may be propositioned for "cybersex," a cousin of telephone sex. They may be asked to meet or to run away.

How Large a Problem?

For all its weaknesses, the first scientific survey of online victimization of youth, conducted by CCRC from August 1999 to February 2000, was revealing:*
  • 19% of young people who used the Internet had received unwanted sexual solicitations in the previous year;
  • 3% had been aggressively solicited-someone asked to meet them somewhere, called them, or sent them regular mail, money, or gifts;
  • 25% had inadvertently opened unwanted pornographic pictures.
Most young people said they were not bothered by the sexual solicitations or pornography, but one in four said they were very upset or afraid. For a 10-year-old just learning about sex, being the target of pornography or a solicitation can be frightening, notes Caren Kaplan, Child Protection Program Manager for the Child Welfare League of America.

More than three-quarters of those targeted were 14 or older-not surprising, since younger children do not use the Internet as much or as independently as do older children. Girls are often thought to be the only targets of sexual propositions, but one-third of those targeted were boys.

A good portion of the sexual solicitors did not appear to fit the stereotype of an older, male predator: 19% claimed to be women, while 48% of all solicitations came from users who said they were male. In short, much of the offensive behavior maybe coming from young people and women.

"A lot of it looks and sounds like the hallways of our high schools," say the study's authors. Most, Kaplan says, are ordinary kids looking to connect with other kids who get interested sexually in someone and do something offensive.

Kaplan sees the problem as much larger than pedophiles. "Juveniles make up almost 50% of the solicitations of other kids. If we see online exploitation simply as the work of 'sick people' who are 'deviant,' we are miscasting the problem."

The survey also showed that many children conceal solicitations they receive. Kids did not disclose nearly half of the solicitations to a parent or even a friend, including 36% of aggressive propositions, thus denying themselves the opportunity to process the episodes and get help in dealing with them. Guilt, embarrassment, and fear of admonishment by parents may be major reasons. Moreover, only 10% of solicitations were reported to the police, Internet service providers, or other authorities. Most parents and young people indicated they did not know where to go to report or get help.

Research has yet to answer the key question: How many actual sexual encounters between adults and minors have sprung from the Internet? But the CCRC survey gives some idea. The authors wrote of their findings, "Several million young people ages 10 through 17 get propositioned on the Internet every year...If even some small percentage of these encounters result in offline sexual assault or illegal sexual contact-a percentage smaller than we could detect in this survey-it would amount to several thousand incidents."

Master Seducers

Experts say adults determined to prey on young people are both sophisticated and practiced in approaching juveniles, repeatedly targeting children of a certain age and body type they fantasize about, and becoming familiar with the music and other interests of such kids. The Internet-especially chat rooms-affords sex offenders an anonymous, safe way to meet children, says Detective Mike Harris, who investigates crimes against children for the Jefferson County, Colorado, district attorney.

"They see only the persona the perpetrator wants them to see," Harris says. "Often, sex offenders are very well rehearsed at how they approach kids. Through years of practice, they have learned how to read kids and how to develop their trust and begin what looks like friendships."

"They're master seducers," says Reuben Rodriquez, Director of the exploited children's unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Alexandria, Virginia. "They manipulate children very, very easily. If they see a child with low self-esteem, they'll build up [her] ego, they'll exchange information," all to win her confidence.

Some make no bones about being an adult, whereas others start by pretending to be a kid and then, as they win the child over, acknowledge being older, say in their early 20s, but still perhaps far less than their real age. Often, the adult does everything he can to drive a wedge between a youth and his parents, disparaging them while agreeing with the youth's complaints about them and sending gifts. The child may come to listen to this person more than his parents. Eventually, Rodriguez says, the adult may send the child pornography, share secrets, and say, "We're friends. Why don't we meet somewhere?"

Such "traveler" cases-an adult traveling to meet a minor for sex or arranging for the minor to come to him-are the greatest concern. But far and away, the most common source of complaints to NCMEC is pornography received by minors.

For some, sending a young person pornography and talking dirty to a juvenile online fulfills their fantasy and is sufficient. But child pornography is also blamed for helping spur adults on the Internet to try to molest kids. The Net is said to have hundreds of thousands of pornographic images of children. According to Mike Medaris of the U.S. Justice Department, law enforcement officers who work Internet-related cases suspect some individuals who previously only dabbled in child pornography are being moved to molestation by "the relentless stimulation" afforded by online images. "It's just easier to get to now," Medaris says, "and the quality is better, and there's new material. You're not looking at the same old magazines you've seen 20 times before."

The Internet, he adds, allows those who fantasize about children to congregate online with others who also regard children as sex objects. The Net is dangerous, he says, because it allows them "to validate each other's interest in kids as okay."

Medaris says child pornography can also play a role in manipulating and seducing victims online. "How do you normalize sex between adults and minors? Photographs are a very effective way to introduce sex between adults and children or teenagers as normal."

Dealing with Adolescents

The dynamics of sexual exploitation online clearly are different for teenagers-the chief target as the CCRC survey shows-than for younger children. Former FBI Agent Kenneth Lanning, for years the bureau's expert on child sexual victimization, points out that adolescents have a strong interest in sex, and teenage boys like to see sexual pictures. Lanning says teenagers may be aggressive online in pursuing an offline sexual relationship. "They react with enthusiasm or alacrity to some of the [sexual] invitations," Medaris adds.

Both are quick to say that these adolescents are victims too, and sexual contact with any minor is a crime. When an adult and a minor have sex, Lanning says, "it's always the adult's fault." Whatever these young people want to do, however willingly they may go along, they cannot legally consent to a sexual liaison.

CCRC's Finkelhor says these minors are "frequently kids with other problems, other deviance, delinquent stuff," and adults online take advantage of their vulnerabilities.

Finkelhor was the lead author of the CCRC study, which points out that when it comes to dealing with online exploitation, what works for children will not work for teenagers. The study gives this example: "Telling parents to regularly check the Internet and e-mail activity of older teens may be tantamount to saying parents should read their mail."

The study observes that Internet safety has largely been a discussion between policymakers and parents; young people themselves have been left out. "Strategies that try to primarily go through parents and invoke a lot of control-supervision issues are going to turn off teens," Finkelhor says. "They're going to say, 'These are just more people who are trying to run my life.'"

Instead, he recommends a dialogue with young people to get their ideas for messages to which their peers will be receptive, and recruiting a cadre of teenagers to persuade their peers about Internet safety. One group, Cyberangels, is already recruiting young people for this purpose. "I think young people can be mobilized on this," Finkelhor says. "They don't want Internet mashers out there making passes at them all the time." The study notes that campaigns against sexual harassment that involve whole schools have been successful if they raise awareness and help students enforce proper conduct among their peers.

What Parents Can Do

Connecticut State Trooper Andrew G. Russell finds it hard to interest parents when he speaks about dangers online. Typically, he says, "in a school of 400 kids, 25 parents will show up."

A year after the shootings at Columbine High School, Colorado's Harris and his wife were invited to talk at the school about the Internet's perils for children. The event was heavily publicized, and they were told to bring at least 100 folders. Six people showed up. Harris spoke at another Colorado school after a 13-year-old girl was picked up in front of the school and sexually assaulted by a man she had met online. "It was very big news at the school," Harris remembers. A meeting to alert parents to such online dangers was well publicized. Three parents came.

"Right now, people don't realize there's a problem, even though kids are being assaulted every day," Harris says.

Parents have to get involved with their kids' use of the Internet, Rodriquez says. "If you purchase a car, you don't give the keys to a child and say, 'Here, go learn how to drive.' It's the same thing with the computer." Parents, he says, need to make sure kids understand the ethics and responsibilities of using this medium, and that means setting rules governing its use.

Parents also must educate themselves about the Internet and it capabilities, Rodriguez says, calling this "the front line of defense." He notes that many parents don't have a clue about the Internet and face a big learning curve. For one thing, they need to become aware that kids can enter thousands of chat rooms on almost any issue. He also warns that "many kids have more than one e-mail account. There's the account the parent knows about, there's the account the kids uses with friends, and there are other accounts that kids use that nobody else knows."

NCMEC advises parents to pay attention to and supervise younger children's online activities, and talk to them about those activities. If a child mentions something upsetting she encountered while online, NCMEC says not to blame her; instead, help her avoid problems in the future-for example, by explaining that people may not be who they seem. Otherwise, she may not confide in you the next time.

NCMEC recommends keeping track of files that children download to their computers, sharing accounts with children to oversee their e-mail, and joining children when they are in private chat areas.

Filtering and blocking software can enable parents to limit children's access to only websites, chat rooms, and newsgroups rated appropriate for minors. Some of it can prevent children from revealing personal information online, such as their name and address. But filtering software cannot block out all dangers in cyberspace and may restrict access to appropriate sites. Moreover, filtering software hasn't caught on with many families, and CCRC says more needs to be known about it before it can be recommended.

NCMEC warns that technological tools are "not a panacea." The best way for parents to protect kids online, it advises, "is to stay in touch with what [kids] are doing." For the uninitiated, that may mean asking kids to show you what they are doing online and to teach you how to use the Internet.

With adolescents, Lanning says, what is needed mainly is plain good parenting. The father of two himself, he says parents need to talk to kids about the benefits and snares of the Internet, much as they spend time talking about driving with a teenager who's about to get his license. It also means doing what may be the hardest thing-talking to kids about sex.

The Limits of Law Enforcement

Law enforcement is playing catch-up against those who commit crimes against young people, brokered by the Internet. Ordinary detectives are unequipped for these investigations, in which suspects have to be "played" online and tracked through cyberspace, computer files must be painstakingly examined, and arrests are often elaborately prepared stings.

When the suspect lives out of state, the investigations can take more time and resources than homicides. Harris says pursuing a suspect in Oregon took 3 months, 152 e-mails, and 9 phone calls lasting at least 45 minutes each. He was impersonating a child, a common technique in such cases.

To deal with both online sexual enticement and child pornography, the federal government in 1998 began funding regional law enforcement task forces. The Internet knows no boundaries, but with the help of the FBI and other federal agencies, these task forces help deal with jurisdictional problems when the suspect is in one state or country and the victim is in another. They also educate the public about online dangers and teach other officers about this work.

These Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces have introduced nearly 15,000 officers and prosecutors to a basic understanding of these crimes; NCMEC has initiated 3,000 more. All of these law enforcement officials, however, need much more training before they are prepared to conduct investigations and prosecutions.

Nationwide, only an estimated few hundred officers are able to conduct such investigations, and few of them pursue these cases full time. Moreover, says the Justice Department's Medaris, law enforcement lags behind offenders in Internet savvy. Says Harris, "There's not going to be enough Internet policing for years to come."

Peter Slavin is a freelance author in the Washington, DC, area.

* All starred information in this article comes from David Finkelhor, Kimberley J. Mitchell, and Janis Wolak. (2000). Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth. Washington, DC: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Available online at www.unh.edu/ccrc/Youth_Internet_info_page.html.

Tips for Parents and Children

  • Get to know the Internet and any services your child uses. Go online together.

  • Set reasonable rules and guidelines for computer use and monitor them, especially the amount of time spent online.

  • Never disclose personal information (age, address, school name, telephone number), screen names, or passwords in public messages, chat rooms or bulletin boards. In e-mails, do so only if both parent and child know and trust the recipient.

  • Keep revealing information out of any online profile. Keep date of birth out of screen names.

  • Never allow a child to arrange a face-to-face meeting with another computer user without parental permission. If you agree to a meeting, make sure it is in a public place, and accompany your child.

  • Learn with whom your children are communicating. Get to know their online friends just as you would their other friends.

  • Children do not have to respond to messages. Never respond to messages or postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or threatening.

  • Don't click on any links in e-mail from people you don't know.

  • Check out blocking and filtering software, as well as software and website ratings.

  • Report pornography, sexual solicitations, or other suspicious activity on the Internet to the police, your Internet service provider, or the CyberTipline at www.cybertipline.com or 1-800-THE-LOST (800/843-5678).
Sources: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and police investigators Andy Russell and Mike Harris

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