Online Predators: What Do We Know, and What Can We Do?

By Lara Long and Diana Zuckerman, PhD

July 2006

Are online predators a real threat to children and teenagers? Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at UCLA, has studied chat rooms for teens and reported that she found explicit sexual exchanges, joking about physical violence and assaults, aggression, and disturbing exchange involving racial prejudice. Even as a passive bystander that did not participate in the “chats,” she received several instant messages making sexual advances. Chat rooms that were not monitored were especially worrisome, but even those that were monitored were not always successful at censuring that kind of material. For example, she learned that teens used codes such as “A/S/L” (age, sex, location) to provide information that would not have been allowed. And, although the chat rooms were supposed to be for teens, there was no way to know how young or old any of the participants were.

The common stereotype of the online predator is that of a middle-aged man with no job who lives alone and whose day is consumed with “luring” young children and teenagers through the internet. But how accurate is this stereotype? Studies such as the National Juvenile Online Victimization Study have attempted to answer this question as well as identify other characteristics associated with online predators.

Studies have found that this “typical” stereotype can be misleading and can actually hinder parents from protecting their children from online predators. Only three characteristics have been found to be significantly associated with online predators:

1. Close to 100% are male
2. 91% are white and non-Hispanic
3. 91% hold a full-time job.

Of course, online predators sometimes pretend to be very different from who they are.

What else is keeping parents from protecting their children from online predators? Kids’ use of social networking sites and messaging services makes it easy for perpetrators to recognize potential victims, gather personal information, and make contact.

So, what can parents do? Talk with your children about the issue and discuss appropriate and responsible use of the Internet. Online sexual victimization of children and teenagers is a very real issue. Legislation currently under way to stop online predators includes Senate Bill 1633, also known as “Stop the Online Predators Act” which would give federal officers permission to pose as minors online. Authorities at all levels are working to put an end to this problem, yet parents remain a main factor in prevention.

To read Protecting Our Children Against Internet Predators, in the 2006 summer newsletter of the Child Abuse Training and Technical Assistance Center, click here: http://www.cattacenter.org/pdf/Summer2006Web.pdf

For more information on this topic, check out MSNBC’s Dateline Special To Catch a Predator at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10912603/