[Back to Scientific Articles]
Internet-initiated sex crimes against minors:
Implications for prevention based on findings from a national study
Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, & Kimberly Mitchell,Journal of Adolescent Health, Volume 35, Issue 5, Page 424 (November 2004)
To describe the characteristics of episodes in which juveniles became victims of sex crimes committed by people they met through the Internet.
Victims in these crimes were primarily 13- through 15-year-old teenage girls (75%) who met adult offenders (76% older than 25) in Internet chat rooms. Most offenders did not deceive victims about the fact that they were adults who were interested in sexual relationships. Most victims met and had sex with the adults on more than one occasion. Half of the victims were described as being in love with or feeling close bonds with the offenders. Almost all cases with male victims involved male offenders. Offenders used violence in 5% of the episodes.
Health care professionals and educators, parents and media need to be aware of the existence, nature and real life dynamics of these online relationships among adolescents. Information about Internet safety should include frank discussion about why these relationships are inappropriate, criminal, and detrimental to the developmental needs of youth.
Many young people who use the Internet encounter sexual overtures [..]. Advising families and young people about how to avoid these overtures and how to handle them when they occur has become a new responsibility of health-care professionals, health educators, and child welfare experts. In the absence of more scientific sources, professionals have had to rely on media reports, which have focused attention on Internet-related sex crimes, particularly those involving young victims who meet offenders online.
These media descriptions of Internet-initiated sex offenses against
young people have emphasized their predatory nature, stressing how the
Internet facilitates deception. Internet molesters have been portrayed
as pedophiles who, pretending to be peers or benevolent adults, strike
up relationships with children and then stalk or lure them into
encounters that end in abduction, rape, or even murder.
Basing prevention recommendations on media accounts of egregious
crimes can lead to misguided public policy. Sex crime dangers have been
particularly prone to mischaracterization [...], leading, for example,
to an under-emphasis on the roles of family members, acquaintances and
other youth in the commission of these offenses.
Also, some youth form online relationships with adults that appear to
be benign or even beneficial [..]. At the same time, one study has
demonstrated that youth were more likely to form online friendships or
romances if they were troubled or, depending on gender, had high levels
of conflict or low levels of communication with parents ]..].
Adolescents with these sorts of problems may be more vulnerable to
The National Juvenile Online Victimization Study used a national survey of federal, state, county, and local law enforcement agencies to collect data about Internet-related sex crimes with juvenile victims. We surveyed law enforcement agencies because the incidence of completed Internet-related sex crimes with juvenile victims is too small to use moderate-sized general population surveys 6 and because law enforcement agencies, as “first responders” to these crimes, have more complete information than other sources, like medical and mental health care providers.
[... ... ...]
Demographic characteristics of victims and offenders
Victims in Internet-initiated cases were predominantly young teens (...). Seventy-six percent were between 13 and 15 years old; 1% was age 12; none were younger than 12; 75% of victims were girls.
[... ... ...]
Where and how online relationships arose
Most first encounters between offenders and victims (76%) happened in online chat rooms. The chat rooms included sites oriented to teens, to specific geographic locations, to dating and romance, to gays, and in a few cases, to sexual encounters between adults and minors. Offenders who met victims online in venues other than chat rooms appeared to use profiles posted by victims. One offender targeted his victim by searching profiles for the word “flirt.” Another found a victim's birth date in her profile and sent her an electronic birthday card to initiate the acquaintance.
The role of deception
Although most of the offenders were much older than their victims, deception about these large age differences was a rare feature of these crimes. Only 5% of offenders represented themselves online as peers of victims by claiming they were age 17 or younger. In some of these cases, the offenders started off saying they were teens, but later introduced that they were older. Another 25% of offenders shaved a few years off their true ages, but still presented themselves as much older than their young targets. For example, men who were 45 told victims they were 35.
How face-to-face meetings developed
Most cases progressed to face-to-face sexual encounters. Seventy-four percent involved face-to-face meetings and 93% of the face-to-face meetings entailed illegal sexual contact between offenders and victims.
The kinds of sex crimes that occurred
In 89% of cases with face-to-face meetings, offenders had sexual intercourse, oral sex, or other form of penetrative sex with victims. Only 5% of cases involved violent offenses, mostly rape or attempted rape. Rapes did not always happen at first meetings. One male victim was raped after several meetings, when he tried to break off a sexual relationship with the offender. Sixteen percent of cases involved coercion. The victims in these cases were pressured into having sex or doing sexual things, like engaging in bondage, that they did not want to do. Again, coercion did not always happen at first meetings.
Confronting an inaccurate stereotype
The prevalent image of Internet sex crimes against minors is of strangers who are pedophiles and who deceive and lure unsuspecting children, frequently over long distances, into situations where they can be forcibly abducted or sexually assaulted. However, this nationally representative sample of Internet-initiated cases known to law enforcement suggests a different predominant scenario with different implications for prevention.
Implications for prevention
These dynamics have important implications for prevention. Current prevention materials about Internet safety emphasize the dangers of deception. They stress that adolescents should not trust people they meet online and urge them to avoid meeting strangers and giving out personal information online. Although these may be useful messages to prevent some forms of victimization, they do not address the dynamics of the Internet sexual exploitation found in a majority of actual cases.
The data suggest that a major challenge for prevention is the population of young teens who are willing to enter into voluntary sexual relationships with adults whom they meet online. This is a reality that health and prevention educators, law enforcement officials and parents may be reluctant to confront. But effective prevention requires public and private acknowledgment of what actually happens in these cases.
Education and awareness
Appropriate prevention messages can be targeted to the general audience of adolescents [..]. One avenue is to educate teenagers directly about why such relationships are a bad idea. Young teens may not be fully aware that the adults in these relationships are committing crimes and can go to jail.
They have probably not considered the publicity, embarrassment, and life disruption likely to accompany a public revelation of such a relationship. They may benefit from understanding the manipulations that adult offenders engage in, and from understanding that adults who care about their well-being would not propose sexual relationships or involve them in risky encounters.
This aspect of adolescent sexual behavior has implications for parents and professionals, too. In addition to monitoring for unhealthy online relationships with adults, parents and professionals working with children need to discuss the reality and inadvisability of these relationships. Because one quarter of the victims were 13-year-olds, these discussions need to start in earliest adolescence.
[Back to Scientific Articles]