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Stranger Danger and Predators (Sexual and Otherwise)

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Sexual predators, scam artists and other predatory criminal types can and sometimes do approach children who are participating in various online communities and attempt to initiate inappropriate relationships. Using personal data children have published about themselves as a means of gaining children's trust, predators may "groom" vulnerable youth so as to make them feel special, unique, and desirable, in both sexual and non-sexual ways. Furthermore, predators manipulate their own presentation to become more attractive to their victims. They will lie about their age, occupation or student status, appearance, physical features, and interests to be more appealing to youth. Because the lines between true friends and acquaintances can become so easily blurred for Internet-connected youth, it is relatively easy for children to put credence into this sort of online relationship and to consider their virtual friends to be closer to them emotionally than other friends from their "real life" world of school, home, and community activities.

Children's online relationships with predators are obviously bad news, opening up the possibility of identity and traditional thefts as previously described as well as the potential for sexual and other abuse. A sexual predators' common goal is to build enough trust with youth to convince children to meet them for a real-life rendezvous. Often, children will keep this meeting a secret, as they know parents wouldn't allow the meeting if they asked permission, or have been convinced by the predator to remain silent. Once children are alone with these predators and realize that they are not comfortable with the situation, they are nearly helpless to protect themselves from assault, sexual abuse, or kidnapping.

The image of youth at the mercy of sexual criminals met while online is alarming and sensational and thus needs to be kept in perspective. Children are far more likely to be victimized by someone they know (e.g., a family member or family friend) than by a stranger they meet while online. According to research on child sexual victimization summarized by Emily M. Douglas and David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center:

Acquaintances and family members commit most sexual abuse and assault. Several studies agree that approximately half of offenders are acquaintances. The studies differ more about the percentage who are family members, the range going from 14% to 47%. A good approximation is that family members constitute a quarter to a third of offenders. Strangers make up the smallest group of perpetrators ranging from 7% to 25%.

As this is a document about children and media, we describe the danger associated with media, but also want to point out that sexual victimization of youth is not a problem limited to or even usually enabled by media.