Sexual Exploitation – Overview

Teens and preteens are at the heart of the social Internet interacting with others through chat, instant messaging, social networking sites, in virtual worlds and online multi-player games. It is inevitable that at an age where young people are starting to explore their sexuality offline, they will do so online in these interactive environments as well.

In fact, many teens feel safer and more confident flirting online than face-to-face. While these are developmentally normal behaviours for adolescents, conducting them in the globally connected, anonymous environment of the Internet poses special risks.

Despite all the panic over “stranger danger”, youth are far more likely to be harassed online by peers or people they know offline. A U.S. study of youth who had been targeted by online sexual predators revealed that less than 10 per cent of sexual solicitations were initiated by adults older than 21 years of age. Most came from people close to the age of their victims with online sexual solicitation most frequently happening between youth.

Research has shown that not all youth are equally at risk of online sexual exploitation, nor are all online activities equally risky. Rather, there are certain characteristics and online activities that could be considered risk markers – indications that someone is likely to take risks online and fall victim to online sexual solicitation. Many of these markers are the same as those used in the identification of at-risk youth; in general, the same youth are at risk online as offline. Most of these markers are not by themselves an indication that a youth is at risk: rather, it is a pattern of characteristics or activities that suggests a youth is vulnerable to online sexual solicitations.

For more on risk markers for online sexual exploitation see the Online Sexual Predators section.