04.28.09

The Myth of Online Predators

Internet child molesters may be the modern parent's great fear but new research suggests this electronic monster is mainly the stuff of bad dreams.

Is letting your kids go online the same as dropping them off at the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop in fishnet stockings at 3 a.m.?

A lot of parents think it is. Or maybe worse. My husband and I took our time letting our oldest boy, who is 13, start his social networking, though that was because we were worried it was like dropping him off at the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop to do his homework—we figured it would never get done. But the towering fear that the second a kid goes online he or she becomes cyberjailbait turns out to be way off base. According to new research, the danger online is teeny-tiny unless your kids are running into chat rooms, typing, “Anyone here like ‘em young?” and posting photos of themselves licking lollipops. Naked.

“The notion that predators are using the Internet as an L.L. Bean catalog, that’s not what’s happening,” says the study’s author.

That reassuring fact comes from a man who studies child predators for a living: David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. He’s the one responsible for the terrifying statistic, “One in seven juveniles will be solicited online”—a number that got predictably huge media play when it came out in 2006, and a number he stands by, with one enormous caveat: Most of those solicitations, he says, are the Internet equivalent of “wolf whistles.”

In other words, they come from guys who are drive-by typing, saying things like, “What’s your bra size?” and “Are you a virgin?” Not guys actually trying to lure Dora the Explorer fans off to the mall.

As uncomfortable as these comments might make us feel as parents, they’re absolutely nothing new. Do your children leave the house occasionally? Then they’ve probably heard similar comments many times before. The reason this type of lechery gets so much attention when it happens online, Finkelhor believes, is that it serves as “revealing ink”—typed out, visible evidence of something that has always gone on, more or less unnoticed. “So, for example,” says Finkelhor, “when your daughter is walking to school with her friend, you don’t see every motorist who leers at them.” On the Internet, you do, because the leering appears as words on a screen. This makes the hoots and hollers seem more menacing. But are they evidence that online child predators are a big threat?

Finkelhor’s whole motive in life is to keep kids safe from sexual predators. That’s why he doesn’t want people focusing on the wrong thing—unlikely scenarios like cyberstalking—when there are bigger dangers, like sex abuse in the home. To keep things in perspective, he studies our worst fears to separate the real from the urban myth. His earlier revelations about the rarity of sensationalized kidnappings—the kind you see on Nancy Grace—made people realize (some people, anyway) that our kids really are not in much danger just walking down the street. Their chances of being abducted and killed by a stranger are, according to the numbers he crunched, 1 in 1.5 million. That’s about 50 children a year—a statistic it makes my stomach sink to write—but far less than the 1,000 killed each year by relatives or acquaintances, a far more stomach-sinking stat.

More recently, Finkelhor turned his attention to the Internet predator, because that’s our newest boogeyman. It almost had to be. All new technologies freak us out. When telegrams came along, people worried that telegraph poles were going to screw up worldwide weather patterns. (Hmmm.) But the truth about cyberstalking? Earlier this month, Finkelhor and his colleague Janis Wolak released a new study of the number of online predators arrested from 2000 to 2006. The results?

NUMBER OF ONLINE PREDATOR ARRESTS SKYROCKETING!

That’s how I expect it will be repeated at PTA meetings from here till eternity, anyway. But the news as the Crimes Against Children Research Center sees it is this: “The facts do not suggest that the Internet is facilitating an epidemic of sex crimes against youth,” says the report.

While the number of arrests did indeed shoot up, from 1,152 to 3,744, the vast majority of the perps pulled in (3,100) were arrested for soliciting the increasing number of law-enforcement decoys—cops online pretending to be juveniles. These decoys skew the numbers upward because they aggressively court potential molesters, a lot more than your average teen ever would.

Now, you might argue that it doesn’t matter if the cops are all but prancing around in their skivvies to get the molesters to act—if act they do, then they’re predators who ought to be locked up. But that misses the point. The issue isn’t whether there are dangerous people online. Of course there are. Almost everyone is online. The issue is whether the online world is any more dangerous than the real world, and according to Finkelhor, it’s not.

Which is probably why arrests of creeps soliciting actual youths totaled only 614. That’s up just 21 percent in the six years of the study. During that same period, Internet use among juveniles rose from 73 percent of the population to 93 percent. In other words, millions of people under age 18 joined the online world, and 107 more creeps were arrested for soliciting them. That number may still seem appalling, but generally it does not even represent fiendish strangers luring unsuspecting children into sex.

In the cases where a minor does end up in a sexual scenario with someone too old for them, usually that someone isn’t decades older—a 21-year-old chatting with a 16-year-old, for example—and both parties make their intentions very clear. This is a far cry from most parents’ fear that posting a picture of cheerleading practice might be enough to bring on the Humbert Humberts.

“The notion that predators are using the Internet as an L.L. Bean catalog, that’s not what’s happening,” said Finkelhor. “That’s a very low-yield strategy for them.” Perverts trolling for cute kids on MySpace would have about as much luck dialing numbers out of the phone book and asking for a date. It just doesn’t work and they know it.

So instead they go looking for “low-hanging fruit. Kids who are going to be easy. And they do that much more by going to places where there’s already a kind of hint of sexual availability,” says Finkelhor.

Thus, skeeves tend to gravitate toward chat rooms geared to sexual topics like dating and romance, and sometimes to support groups for sexual minorities. In other words: Not Club Penguin. And not your kid’s Facebook page.

Still, on one of many Web sites devoted to childhood safety (this one called “Connect With Kids”), a police officer compares the dangers of the Internet to the real world thusly: “I can tell you, it’s like going to a big, empty field and putting a big plate of ice cream on a blanket and walking away for an hour and coming back and finding out how many ants and flies there are, because that’s what it’s like. It’s almost unbelievable how many people are out there, every day, searching in chat rooms for children.”

He’s right—if by “big plate of ice cream” he means a cop decoy wandering into a sexually charged chat room and hinting that she (or he) is horny as heck and sweet 16 and her parents are out of town and gee she’d like an iPod and a backrub.

In other words, if she drops herself off at the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop in fishnet stockings.

My 13-year-old is online and I’m not worried. We’ve talked (and talked!) about relationships, safety, sex, integrity, and the unlikelihood that anyone would give him an iPod, or anything, for free. Our job as parents is to prepare kids, not to lock them away from technology.

Nothing is ever 100 percent safe—a fact a lot of us have forgotten. But when you do remember this, the Internet seems less like a truck stop after dark, and more like the rest of the world: a reasonable place our kids can hang out with each other.

After they’ve done their homework.

Lenore Skenazy is founder of freerangekids.com and author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.