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Most Internet Sex Offenders Target Teens, Not Kids

Surveys say most vulnerable youths have history of abuse, family problems

FRIDAY, Feb. 22 (HealthDay News) -- The stereotype of the middle-aged male sex offender posing online as a young person to trick adolescents into clandestine meetings where they can be abducted and raped is inaccurate, a new study finds.

Instead, Internet-initiated sex crimes most often involve adult men who do not lie about their age, are open about wanting sex, and use instant messaging, e-mail and chat rooms to meet and seduce teenagers, according to research published in the February/March issue of American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association.

According to study co-author David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, most arrested sex offenders who find victims on the Internet are charged with crimes such as statutory rape that involve nonviolent sexual relations with adolescents too young to consent to sexual intercourse.

The research team found that online sexual predators rarely resorted to violence or abduction of their victims. Instead, the sex offenders worked slowly, developing the trust of their young victims who felt these relationships were romances or sexual adventures.

"We have to be frank about what is going on if we are going to stop the problem. The teens are often looking for attention, affection, excitement and romance. That doesn't make it a less serious problem, because the teenagers may in some ways contribute to the situation. The adult should know that having sexual relationships with young teenagers is against the law, but they go ahead and do it. It is still a crime," said Finkelhor.

The research was compiled from three surveys -- two telephone interviews totaling 3,000 young Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17 conducted both in 2000 and 2005 and 612 interviews in 2001 and 2002 with federal, state and local law enforcement officials who have expertise in investigating Internet-initiated sex crimes. The data revealed almost 75 percent of victims who met sex offenders in person did so more than once.

"This is a very interesting study and supports other previous research. My only caveat is that it was primarily based on phone interviews, and the researchers were reporting what they were told by the young people," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The investigators identified several behaviors that appear to make teens more likely to receive sexual contact from predators, including placing people they didn't know on their instant messaging buddy lists, talking about sex online with strangers, and engaging in rude or nasty chats online. The teens most vulnerable to online sex offenders are more likely to be risk takers and to have histories of sexual or physical abuse and family problems. In addition, the researchers concluded boys who are gay or are questioning their sexuality may be at higher risk of sex crimes initiated on the Internet than other groups.

The study indicates MySpace and Facebook, social networking Web sites popular with teens, do not appear to increase the risk of adolescents being victimized by sexual predators. The same conclusion was reached recently in a study by one of the researchers of this latest article; that earlier work appeared in the February issue of Pediatrics. Instead, talking online about sex to strangers in chat rooms or with instant messaging heightened the risk of exposure to sex offenders.

"I would caution that it is not clear the Internet has increased the level of risk in young people, although perhaps it has changed the venue for some of these situations with sexual predators. There has certainly been plenty of statutory sex offenses going on before the popularity of the Internet, and it may have migrated to the Web, because that's where people are. However, statistics don't suggest there's a big explosion of it and, in fact, suggest sex crimes against children are going down," Finkelhor explained.

"The bottom line is that most teens are doing a good and responsible job of being on the Internet. But teens think they are immortal, and it is important for parents to keep the lines of communication open and for youngsters to realize predators are out there," said Allen.

More information

For more on protecting children and teens from sexual exploitation, visit The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

SOURCES: David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director, Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H.; Ernie Allen, president and chief executive officer, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Washington, D.C.; February/March 2008, American Psychologist

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