Online Sexual Predators

When most people think about sexual risk and harm on the Internet, sexual predators come to mind. Because of its sensational nature, the spectre of unscrupulous adults preying upon and sexually exploiting kids online gets a lot of media attention. Although this does happen, sensational headlines do not help us understand the nature and true extent of the problem or how to deal with it effectively.

The problem with numbers

Since 2002 (when the Canadian Criminal Code was amended to make contacting children online for sexual exploitation illegal), there has been a significant increase in reported cases. This is certainly cause for concern, but the truth is it’s difficult to tell whether this is due to an increase in the number of incidents, an increase in the number of cases that are reported, or a reflection of increasing numbers of young people going online.

What we do know is that in 2006 and 2007, 464 incidents of child luring on the Internet were reported by Canadian authorities. Of these, 122 cases were criminally prosecuted, resulting in 89 guilty verdicts. The accused were most often males between the ages of 18 to 34, according to Statistics Canada.

What strategies do online sexual predators use?

Contrary to the widespread belief that online predators “trick” kids, research shows they rarely lie about their age or their motives. Their tactic is not one of deception but of seduction: they will shower a youth with attention, sympathy, affection and kindness, in order to persuade him or her that they love and understand them. The majority of adolescents who accept invitations to meet in person do so knowing that they will be engaging in sex. For 73 per cent of these youth, this will become a recurring sexual relationship. (Few of these incidents – five per cent – are of a violent nature.) For more details, see Online “Predators” and their Victims (page 7).

Which youth are most at risk?

When it comes to online sexual exploitation, some youth are more at risk than others. Research indicates that 13- to 15-year-old girls are most vulnerable, particularly those who voluntarily place themselves in risky situations- by engaging in online discussions with strangers, flirting and talking about sex online, and by publicly posting personal and intimate information in Web environments such as social networking sites.

It’s important to remember that young people who are most at risk online also tend to be those who are most at risk offline: they include youth who engage in harmful or risk-taking behaviours in the real world, gay or questioning sexuality (males), youth who are experiencing physical or sexual abuse, youth who are experiencing mental health difficulties and youth who have relationship difficulties with parents or caregivers.

How can you tell if a young person is being targeted?

It is possible that a youth is the target of an online predator or is being sexually exploited if:

  • They spend a great deal of time online alone
  • Pornography or sexual photos are found on their computer
  • They receive phone calls from people their parents don’t know; or make calls (sometimes long distance) to numbers their parents don’t recognize
  • They receive mail, gifts or packages from someone their parents don’t know
  • They withdraw from family and friends; or quickly turn the computer monitor off or changes the screen if an adult enters the room