Study Debunks Web Predator Myths

Don't believe the hype.

It's not just Flavor Flav's catchphrase, it's good advice for parents, teachers, police, and anyone else concerned about the threat of Internet predators.

According to a new study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, most of what you think about Web-based sex predators is probably wrong.

The study, published in the February/March issue of the journal American Psychologist and titled, "Online 'Predators' and Their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention," was based on three surveys: two of teen Internet users, and one involving hundreds of interviews with law enforcement officials. The results reveal that "the stereotype of the Internet 'predator' who uses trickery and violence to assault children is largely inaccurate."

Much of the public's concern comes from fear-mongering journalism. While TV shows like NBC’s "To Catch a Predator" and the "Today Show" gain high ratings scaring parents into thinking that threats to children lurk around every corner and abound on the Web, the reality is quite the opposite.

Among the study's findings:

Myth# 1: The sexual abuse of children has jumped, largely because of the surge in Internet predators.

Despite popular belief (and a fact-challenged 2001 "Newsweek" magazine headline that claimed that the Internet has created a "shocking increase in childhood exploitation of children"), sex assaults on teens dropped significantly (more than 50 percent) between 1990 and 2005. Ironically, it is the alarmist news coverage of sex offenses that has jumped dramatically over the past decade—not the attacks themselves.

Myth #2: Internet predators are a new threat to children.

In fact, the largest threat to children always has been, and remains, the child's parents and caregivers. Children are in far more danger of being abused, kidnapped, or killed by their parents than any stranger on the street or on the Web. While the Internet is a new way for some predators to find victims, if the Internet had not been invented they would have found victims in other ways—at home, school, or church, for example.

Myth #3: Children should not interact with strangers online because of the potential for abuse.

If there is one thing that the Internet does better than anything else, it is connecting people who don't know each other. That's the magic of the World Wide Web; it's just as easy to communicate online with someone around the block as around the world. Of course everyone (including kids and teens) should be careful about divulging personal information, but in virtual life, just as in real life, the vast majority of strangers are not a threat.

Myth #4: Most Internet predators are pedophiles.

The public largely assumes that people looking for sex online are targeting young children, but that's not true. In fact, most predators seek relationships and sex from teens and adolescents, not from younger children.

Myth #5: Internet predators often use deception to abduct and forcibly rape their victims.

The reality is that Web predators rarely use deception; most victims are well aware that the person they are communicating with online is an adult interested in sex. The predators rarely trick or force their victims into sex; they don't need to because the victims often voluntarily meet with them, intending to have sex. Most Web predators are guilty of statutory—not forcible—rape because the victim is under the age of consent.

Misplaced concern

There is no doubt that Internet predators are real, and do pose a threat. But the real danger is the public's deeply flawed understanding of the problem.

"To prevent these crimes, we need accurate information about their true dynamics," said Janis Wolak, lead author of the study. "The things that we hear and fear and the things that actually occur may not be the same."

Until the news media start accurately characterizing child sexual abuse and the real dangers of Internet predation, America's children will remain at greater risk.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about sex offender panics and Megan's Law in his book" Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." This and other books can be found on his website.