When Marlene Kane’s sixteen-year-old son Andrew asked her to drive him to the nearby town of Midland last December, she was surprised to hear that he wanted to meet with someone he had met while playing the online game World of Warcraft – and even more surprised to learn that the person he was meeting was a 42-year-old mother of four from Texas. Experts on sexual solicitation of youth online were less shocked however. In fact, for them the only surprising thing was Lauri Price’s sex. Everything else about the scenario – how they made contact, Price’s openness about her age, Andrew’s willingness to meet her, and the lack of deception about her intentions – all fit the evolving picture of how youth are sexually exploited online.
All of this contrasts with the popular image of an “Internet predator,” which over the years has been built up to be similar to the monster in the movie Alien: a pedophile, most likely a man in his forties, who conceals himself within a false Internet identity and uses it to win the trust of a young girl, leading up to an offline meeting which ends in an abduction and rape. Recent research, however – particularly work done by Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, and Kimberly J. Mitchell of the Crimes against Children Research Center and Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire and by Michele L. Ybarra of the organization Internet Solutions for Kids – has shown that this picture is almost entirely false.
To begin with, the research has shown that social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook are not any more dangerous than other online environments. In fact, the only online environment that does correlate to receiving sexual solicitations is chat rooms, and in general online sex offenders rely on tools such as e-mail and instant messaging (IM) to develop relationships with their victims. What these technologies have in common is that they are immediate and intimate – chatrooms and IM, in particular, mimic a live conversation. In this way we might see the movement of youth away from chatrooms to social networking sites as an improvement in terms of their safety from online sexual solicitation. Although the research available does not specifically consider online games as a means of communication, their chat systems resemble chat rooms and IM, in that conversations are carried out in real time and there are relatively few barriers to contacting someone – you can chat with anyone who is on the same “channel,” and channels are generally public.
While it was once thought that posting personal information online was a particularly dangerous activity, the research has shown that it does not, by itself, increase the risk of receiving sexual solicitations. Instead, it is one of a number of behaviours that may be considered risky. The more of these behaviours a youth engages in, the greater the risk of receiving sexual solicitations. In addition to posting personal information, behaviours identified as being risky are include sending personal information to people not known to you, interacting online with people you don’t know, having unknown people on a “buddy” or contact list, talking to unknown people online about sex, seeking out online pornography, being rude or aggressive towards others online, using the Internet to embarrass or harass others, and downloading images from file-sharing programs. It’s important to note that these behaviours are associated with receiving sexual solicitations online, not necessarily the cause of it. Rather, the evidence suggests that engaging in four or more of these behaviours is associated with a general risk-taking attitude that increases the risk that a youth will receive and respond to online solicitations: research has shown that the same youth are risk offline as online. Although we don’t have a full picture of Andrew Kane’s online behaviour, it’s clear that he had engaged in at least two of these behaviours: sending personal information to someone he only knew online and talking about sex online. Like the vast majority of reported victims, he went willingly to his offline meeting: only one of all the cases in the American study involved an abduction, and only one in twenty involved forced sex. (Investigators have remarked that victims often remain loyal to offenders even after the relationship has been brought to light, which can make prosecutions difficult.)
The most unusual thing about the case was the sex genders of the two people involved: nearly all (99%) of those who solicit sex online are male, and 79% of victims are girls; of the 21% who are boys, most are gay or are questioning their sexuality. At 42, her Lauri Price’s age was somewhat unusual: while American research has shown that 60% of offenders are over 25, recent Canadian data found that only about 35% of those accused of “child luring” were over 35. Aside from those, however, Lauri Price was fairly typical of those who solicit sex from youth online. To begin with she was white, as are 84% of online predators; as well, she had no history of violence (like 95% of predators) or prior arrests (79% of offenders studied had no prior record of non-sexual crimes, although unlike Price some did have records of sexual offences.) Most importantly, Price was absolutely typical in that she did not disguise either her identity or her intentions: 80% of offenders are open about their age and 85% make clear their interest in sex with the victim. Moreover Andrew Kane, at 16, was a fairly typical victim: 99% of victims studied were between 13 and 17 years old, and none were younger than 12.
In order to protect young people online we need to understand – and to make them understand – what we are protecting them from. To begin with, we have to be aware that not all children are equally at risk: certain behaviours, such as seeking out sexual material or talking about sex online, and certain other factors, such as being female, being gay or questioning one’s sexuality, or having previously been abused sexually, substantially increase the risk of receiving and responding to online sexual solicitations. As well, we must recognize that offenders do not generally disguise their identities or their intentions but openly attempt to position themselves as potential sexual partners. In a way, the term “predator” is more accurate than we knew: like predators in the animal kingdom, they target the most vulnerable – those young people who are prone to taking risks, particularly in their sexual behaviour; those who are insecure or confused about their sexuality; and those who have already been wounded. Armed with this information, we can learn to watch for warning signs and risky behaviours in our children, we can be candid with them about the kinds of behaviours and material they may encounter online, and we can teach them about the realities of how adults can exploit young people’s inexperience, insecurity and developing sexuality.