Sexual Predators: The Imagined and the Real
What if the sexual predator image you have in your mind is wrong?
By Dr. Danah Boyd May 5, 2014
Almost everyone recognizes that social media—from cell phones to websites—has created a place for teens to connect with each other and socialize. In her book, It’s Complicated: The social lives of networked teens, Danah Boyd examines the landscape of social media for and with teens and parents throughout the country. The book explores issues ranging from privacy and teenage obsession with social media to bullying and perceived dangers.
In this guest post, Dr. Boyd details the misconceptions about online sexual predators and responds to the question, “Are sexual predators lurking everywhere?”
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If you're a parent, you've probably seen the creepy portraits of online sexual predators constructed by media: The twisted older man, lurking online, ready to abduct a naive and innocent child and do horrible things. If you're like most parents, the mere mention of online sexual predators sends shivers down your spine. Perhaps it prompts you to hover over your child's shoulder or rally your school to host online safety assemblies.
But what if the sexual predator image you have in your mind is wrong? And what if that inaccurate portrait is actually destructive?
When it comes to child safety, the real statistics don’t stop parental worry. Exceptions dominate the mind. The facts highlight how we fail to protect those teenagers who are most at-risk for sexual exploitation online.
If you poke around, you may learn that 1 in 7 children are sexually exploited online. This data comes from the very reputable Crimes Against Children Research Center, however, very few take the time to read the report carefully. Most children are sexually solicited by their classmates, peers, or young adults just a few years older than they are. And most of these sexual solicitations don't upset teens. Alarm bells should go off over the tiny percentage of youth who are upsettingly solicited by people who are much older than them. No victimization is acceptable, but we need to drill into understanding who is at risk and why if we want to intervene.
The same phenomenal research group, led by David Finkelhor, went on to analyze the recorded cases of sexual victimization linked to the internet and identified a disturbing pattern. These encounters weren't random. Rather, those who were victimized were significantly more likely to be from abusive homes, grappling with addiction or mental health issues, and/or struggling with sexual identity. Furthermore, the recorded incidents showed a more upsetting dynamic. By and large, these youth portrayed themselves as older online, sought out interactions with older men, talked about sex online with these men, met up knowing that sex was in the cards, and did so repeatedly because they believed that they were in love. These teenagers are being victimized, but the go-to solutions of empowering parents, educating youth about strangers, or verifying the age of adults won't put a dent into the issue. These youth need professional help. We need to think about how to identify and support those at-risk, not build another an ad campaign.