Is the internet full of child predators?

Submitted by mfitch on February 13, 2009 - 05:49. ::

Recently on my PlanetWisdom blog ( I replied to a youth pastor's question about some Internet snooping software and my opinions about technologies that allow parents to spy on their kids.
I was rather shocked by the responses I received from angry parents questioning my judgment (mainly via email) and realized that either I was completely off-base in my response, or many parents are buying into a story about online safety without doing their homework.
So I did my homework and what I found was pretty interesting.
There is a small number of researchers who have been assessing the severity of online crime against children and adolescence. While any crime against a child is very serious, most researchers seem to agree that there is irrational fear over the dangers on the Internet. One study conducted with a grant from the Justice Department ( has actually gone through two cycles of research to measure the changes from the year 2000 to 2005. Most of the research I will share with you was released between 2006 and 2008 and is the most current information I could obtain.
1. The media's portrayal of online predators is not consistent with what is actually happening.
The idea that sexual molesters are using the Internet to deceptively prey on youth is what most stereotypically comes to mind when we imagine an "online predator". While these incidents are indeed serious, they are not as frightening as the public has come to believe. While there are incidents of adults soliciting teens on the Internet, most were not done in the predatory manner the public has come to believe. Most online sexual solicitations happen to teenagers and originate from other teens and 20 somethings. Of those interactions where an adult was involved, the adult did not hide their age or use deception. Most were up front about their interest in some form of sexual engagement. Most teens involved in this behavior were participating in specific "at risk behaviors" and met other criteria (read the following report in footnote for more). The average teen not engaging in these behaviors were rarely engaged. The report also mentions that posting personal information is not in itself an at risk behavior. (1)
The research goes as far to indicate that talking generally to strangers online is not what puts kids at risk because teens who find themselves in these situations are looking for these kinds of encounters. In fact of those teens who had received an unwanted sexual solicitation 75% said they did not find it distressing and were not psychologically harmed. (2)
Dr. Finkelhor ( who is a primary researcher in this field and an expert in matters of children and sexual abuse had this to say. "It turns out that the young people who are vulnerable to these kinds of crimes, they're going online looking for things they're not getting in their families and in their life. There needs to be information about this that's available on the Web and the places where these young people hang out. It is important for parents to have conversations about Internet safety, but those conversations should probably be less about giving out personal information and more about what to do if somebody starts to talk with them about sex, and how to deal with inclination to post sexy pictures of yourself or information about yourself that suggests an interest in a sexual relationship." (3)
2. From 1992 – 2008 there has been a 53% drop in sexual offenses against children. (4)
This goes far beyond the public perception of increased vulnerability and abuse of children. When you consider that the Internet grew during that twelve year span, it would appear that the Internet is not increasing the amount of abuse that is going on in our world. In fact, offline abuse still significantly outnumbers that which occurs online. When one considers that the vast majority of sex crimes against children and teens are committed by someone they know, probably going to church is more dangerous than interacting with someone online. (In fact, 44% of Internet sexual offenders were family members, and 56% were known to the victim offline (friends, neighbors, teachers, youth workers etc). The number of online incidents with a complete stranger are so rare they are statistically non-existent). (5)
3. What is clear is that children and teens are more likely to encounter "unwanted" sexual content when involved in the Internet.
There is some debate among the research as to how much of a threat this is compared to traditional forms of finding sexual material offline (i.e a fathers porn stash, or something shared by a friend). What is of note is that there has been a dramatic decline in "unwanted" exposure from 2000 to 2005 as laws and industry self-policing have are working to keep sexual material from reaching the eyes of minors. In fact the majority of incidents involved adolescents and the incidents of pre-pubescent solicitation of adult material was almost non-existent. But there is still a significant increased risk of a minor encountering unwanted sexual content on the Internet. (6)
1. We need to be careful about what we believe.
As parents how we perceive the world around us greatly impacts how we parent. Much of the harm we do as parents is motivated by a desire to do the right thing, we just do it in the wrong way. My upcoming book and seminar titled "Real World Parents" ( address this need to have an accurate understanding of culture as we seek to biblically guide our children toward spiritual maturity. Christians live in a marketplace that utilizes fear to sell books, fill conferences, and raise money. We need to be wary about any "data" we are given even by our trusted Christian leaders (read: "Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics" by Christian Smith in Christianity Today.
2. We need to realize that stranger danger is not the best safety message.
Most crimes against children occur by a family member or someone the child knows. Consider that out of the nearly 800,000 missing children reported last year only 115 were the victims of a complete stranger or someone the child only "slightly" knew! (7) Researchers claim the key to teaching our children about safety is helping them identify behavior that is unusual or improper from peers and adults be they strange OR familiar. Children also need to know what to do when they are experience these behaviors from others. Most strangers would definitely help a child in need, we don't want to scare them from this valuable source of help!
Bottom line: the best safety measure is being involved in the lives of your kids without violating their need to mature and become self reliant.
3. We don't want to live in fear, but the Internet does have a dark side so we need to be wise.
While I have been making a case that the Internet may not be the safety concern many might believe, this doesn't mean we shouldn't be careful as parents. Keep the computer in a public place, do not allow your kids to have passwords unknown to you, talk with your kids about their online interactions like you would other interactions they have throughout the day.
But please realize that 85% of school aged kids have access to the Internet outside the home and filters and monitoring software are easily worked around. Think of tools like these as very light protections that do not replace solid training. When my kids were little I didn't let them play with bottles of poison, but I didn't trust a child safety cap either. I taught them the dangers of these products so even if they came in contact with them, they would know what to do.
What is more, if your children are involved in questionable online behavior, your family (not just the child in question) probably need to seek professional counseling. The studies show that most teens who engage in dangerous Internet behaviors are doing so as a result of problems and unmet needs at home. This is not a time to be proud. Get the help you need.
4. Be aware that research is showing that online interactions are actually good for your kids.
You may not get it as a parent, but the evidence is giving online activity a thumbs up. It won't be long and your kids will be armed with this data too! Celebrate the positives of the Internet.
Researchers, including participants from University of California-Berkeley and University of Southern California, conducted interviews, studied diaries, convened focus groups and collected nearly 10,500 profiles on sites such as Facebook and Neopets. The $3.3 million study, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, found that youths use online networks to extend friendships, acquire technical skills, learn from each other, explore interests and develop expertise. This all takes "ongoing maintenance and negotiation."
In what researchers call "hypersocial" behavior, media at the fingertips enable teens to always be connected. And instant messaging, text messages and Facebook have changed dating as well: Couples "telecocoon," creating a full-time intimate community even while physically apart.
As for mere socializing, "It is not a waste of time for teens to hang out on-line," said Mizuko Ito, a professor at the University of California-Irvine and lead researcher for the study "Living and Learning with New Media." Kids on-line, the study said, are learning to be "competent citizens in the digital age." (8)
1. Online "Predators" And Their Victims, Myths, Realities, and Implications for Prevention and Treatment 2008 by the American Psychological Association 0003-066X/08/$12.00 Vol. 63, No. 2, 111–128 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.63.2.111
2. David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Janis Wolak. Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later. Alexandria, Virginia: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2006
3. National Public Radio (NPR) February 20, 2008 Wednesday Day to Day 4:00 PM EST "The Online Predator Myth"
4. David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones (2008) Updated Trends in Child Maltreatment
5. David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Janis Wolak. Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later. Alexandria, Virginia: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2006
6. Andrea J. Sedlak, David Finkelhor, Heather Hammer, and Dana J. Schultz. U.S. Department of Justice. "National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview" in National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, October 2002, page 5.
7. Kimberly J. Mitchell, Janis Wolak, & David Finkelhor. (2007). Trends in Youth Reports of Sexual Solicitations, Harassment and Unwanted Exposure to Pornography on the Internet. Journal of Adolescent Health, 40(2), 116-126.
8. San Jose Mercury News (California) November 20, 2008 Thursday "Chill out, parents: Time online teaches kids important skills, study finds", Sharon Noguchi Mercury News
Mark Matlock has been working with youth pastors and students for more than fifteen years. He speaks to hundreds of thousands of students around the world each year, and presents biblical truths in ways that motivate people to change. Mark's the founder of WisdomWorks Ministries, and writes for several magazines. He's the author of several books, including "What Does God Want From Me?," "Living a Life That Matters," "Don't Buy the Lie," and "Freshman." Mark lives in Texas with his wife, Jade, and their children, Dax and Skye.
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