It has been said that the internet is to information and social networking as fire was to the caveman (Hudson, 1997, p. 7). The internet is a wealth of information, some of which may be used in research, continuing of education, as a tool to communicate with old friends or discover new acquaintances. For others, it’s a place to spend time shopping, for some a way to travel to far off places, for a few, a place to express anger and to bully the unsuspecting. For the perverted, it’s a place to entice and prey on the youngest web surfer and lure them into the deepest, darkest place the net has to offer. The cyber predator lurks on the internet with the most deceitful and cunning intentions, continuously attempting to attract the innocent to satisfy their own perverted sense of pleasure.
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The internet has ignited excitement for learning on a global scale. Adults and youth alike surf the internet for the purpose of shopping, social networking and occasionally the thrill of the instant message or chat. A false sense of security combined with the perception of anonymity, with little regard for personal information obscures the dangers that lurk beneath a mesmerizing facade. Online interactions can expose youth to an insidious danger that can expose their safety and literally become a threat to their well being.
What is this major threat that can harm the most internet savvy youth of today? With the exponential growth of online social networking, within sites such as MySpace or Facebook, predators lurk with intentions that reach far beyond friendship. Social networking sites are the fastest growing forms of universally accessible communication. The knowledgeable cyber predator already has this figured out. Between the years 2007 and 2009, MySpace evicted 90,000 profiles of convicted sex offenders (ABC 2009). Preceding 2007, 29,000 sex offenders had been identified and removed from the social networking site. These networking sites have become the new playgrounds for our youth.
Who is the cyber predator? Look around at the next PTA meeting, church social gathering, or soccer game. They could be your Priest, Rabbi, doctor or lawyer, family friend or the neighbor next door. The cyber predator does not wear a sign, they are not of any particular age or race, and they rarely announce their intentions. They hide with anonymity.
Picture a middle aged man, lonely, maybe a widower, divorced or who has lost the spark in his marriage. While surfing the web, a fantasy develops of a younger woman, looking for an experienced man, someone to show her the way. During one of his trips into cyber space he finds his way into one of the many famous on-line chat rooms, looking for romance in his local area. There he meets an exciting young girl, the one in his fantasy. At this point, it’s not important what they have in common.
They chat for a while and agree to chat again. Over time, he thinks the relationship is developing. He begins to gains her trust. They exchange email addresses and phone numbers and manages to get her home address. Emails are sent, many photos are exchanged and eventually the phone call is made. The meeting is set. But wait, she is not really 18. Was that part of the fantasy?
He begins to build her confidence and trust into what she is looking for in an online relationship. She seems so mature at times, yet naive and innocent without many of life experiences. He will show her what she needs to know. He convinces her to meet would be acceptable. “We’ll just meet, talk and get to know each other”. The meeting is set. He has bought her a gift. He will buy her dinner and all will be fine once she gets to know him. It’s just an innocent meeting, right? Or is this a common method of the predator?
Today’s scheming predator relies on the internet and support groups to aid in the identification and methods to exploit children (Davis, McShane, & Williams, 1995). They often use false profiles to lull parents into a false sense of security about the stranger’s presence within the family structure (Mahoney and Faulkner, 1997). This false sense of security often aids in the deception of what actually is occurring. They use their knowledge of computer technology as a method to gain the information they are desperately seeking. The expertise and skills they possess is not strictly related to collecting child pornography, downloading and trading of encrypted pornographic photos and movies, or searching peer to peer file sharing sites. This is only part of their pattern of behavior. The crafty predator searches the social networking sites, blogs, online game rooms, surveys and contests for details containing personal information such as; club affiliations, school names, neighborhood friends, parents’ names, addresses or locations that might be significant in their future search. From there, they begin their search in one of the popular search engines, keying off of a personal name, names of parents or step parents, addresses, friends names or the name and address of a school. They might get lucky and come up with a few personal pictures or additional details to help them extend the search. For the unsuspecting, the details provided in chat profiles can contain a wealth of information. But what does the predator look for? What are the details for that perfect match that will be the enable for him to proceed and get to know his a found friend?
In today’s fast paced world, the internet has a way of providing immediate feedback; some of that feedback can be a fun and thrilling challenge. The fast response of the chat can be filled with humor, sarcasm, or trust for developing friendship. For the unsuspecting, it can be a place to share feelings and the frustrations of their young life. More often then not, many kind sympathetic strangers will be willing to lend an ear, offer advice, or just listen to ones’ problems with their parents.
Children are often naive and trusting of others and simultaneously are in need of attention and affection. In the vastness of the cyber world, it’s easy for a skilled predator to pick up on the signs of loneliness (McKenna & Bargh, 2000) and befriend the young and impressionable. With advice and a kind word, they seem compassionate and more understanding than their parents. On the outset, they share the perception of common feelings. As the chat progresses, the skillful predator is looking for someone who seems lonely or maybe detached from their families. The victim now has a new friend, someone who seemingly understands their problems better than their parents do. With the illusion now set and with a little convincing, the problems seem magnified and a secret alliance is now formed. For the young victim, it is not clear they are chatting with a seasoned pro, the online predator.
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When one thinks of the child predator, the vision of a stranger showing up at the playground with candy and photos of lost puppies comes to mind. This common or traditional method of child victimization, usually involved a target that was in close proximity; sporting events, youth activities or church groups and the resulting abduction was quick and with devastating results. Today, the new playground is a virtual world, and the predator hides in cyber space.
In contrast, with past scenarios, the predators of today typically have a large number of attempts and a small number of successes. Their process is slow and gradual, building a trust as they progress towards getting to know their victim. This clever manipulation is commonly referred to as “Grooming”. Grooming involves a skillful process of manipulation typically initiated through a non sexual approach, designed to entice the victim into a sexual encounter (Brown, 2001). The predators’ friendship is the initiation into the grooming process. The exploitation is unhurried and measured; without reference to anything sexual, over time this gradual process intensifies. Through ongoing interactions, online conversations, gifts, and phone calls the child begins to lower their inhibitions and no longer perceives the predator to be an outsider. This close bond is the enabler that creates a victim more likely to comply with sexual advances. After months of this online relationship, the child’s defense mechanism is gone and the predator is now viewed as a peer.
Today’s youth is exposed to pornography in many different ways. Accidental exposure may result from a mistyped word in search engine or spam emails. Others may seek pornography on-line or freely share provocative pictures of themselves to friends and peers. This exposure, accidental or not, has desensitized the youth of today to pornography. All forms of youth exposure pornography have aided the methodical predator in his online quest for sexual solicitation. Gradually, the predator exposes the child to more pornography and begins the acceptance process of the child to nudity. Over time, he gradually suggests the child photograph themselves in sexually provocative poses, then pass along the photos, convincing them that this will help validate the relationship. The predator may send child pornography, hoping to stimulate curiosity and convince the child that sexual relationships with adults is accepted and widely practiced. Once again, building on the relationship, the predator knows, the closer the bond, the more likely the victim will be to comply with sexual advances.
Once the stage is set, it is easy for the confident predator to arrange and establish the face to face meeting. The unassuming victim, over time, may have learned to trust the predator more than their own parents and nothing will stop them. The predator, having convinced the victim they live locally, may travel great distances to facilitate the meeting. As seen in the popular television series, “To Catch A Predator” (Dateline NBC) many predators are caught up in the moment and do not see anything wrong with their intentions. Others know exactly what they are doing and will go to great lengths to preserve the relationship to satisfy their perverse behavior.
A year long survey conducted in 2001 of 129 internet-initiated sex crimes involving victims age 17 or younger, found face-to-face meetings had occurred in 74 percent of the cases. Ninety three percent of those encounters included sexual contact. Seventy-five percent of the victims were girls. A large number of the victims report they had willingly met and had sexual encounters with the predator (Lewis, Miller, Buchalter, M. P. AR. 2009).
Researchers have concluded the increase in online child exploitation can be directly linked to increased internet accessibility and anonymity as well as the commercialization of exploitive material and the production and dissemination of digital imagery. By 2005, ninety one percent of all children had access to the internet (Whitaker, Bushman, 2009) and sixty six percent stated they had no parental supervision while using the internet.
The first line of defense in preventing children from becoming victims of online predators must be the parents and primary caregivers. A communicative parent-child relationship, appropriate sexual education and parental participation in child internet activities are critical factors in preventing children from falling victim to the online predator.
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