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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.

This has led to prevention messages that advise youth not to correspond online with strangers, give out identifying information, or go alone to meet individuals they have met only online. Beyond the fact that this advice is widely ignored and seen as unrealistic by many young people [...], there are also questions about the accuracy of this characterization of sex offenses that occur as a result of Internet meetings.

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, these standard prevention messages seem to be crafted without taking into account much of what is known about youth social life and Internet practices. In fact, most adolescents who use the Internet converse online, at least casually, with people they haven't met face-to-face; many form online friendships that become offline friendships; and most of these friendships are with other youth [...].

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 online victimization.

We designed the present study to examine the characteristics of sex crime victims, ages 17 and younger, who met sex offenders on the Internet and the dynamics of those crimes in an effort to provide a systematic and scientifically based description of Internet-initiated sex offenses committed against young people in the United States. We addressed several questions:

(a) What were the demographic characteristics of the victims and offenders?
(b) Where and how did online relationships arise?
(c) What was the role of deception?
(d) How did face-to-face meetings develop?
(e) What kinds of sex crimes occurred and how often were violence, coercion or abduction involved?


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.


We used a two-phase methodology of a mail survey followed by telephone interviews. We adapted this data collection strategy from a similar methodology developed to investigate the incidence and characteristics of stereotypical child abduction cases.

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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.

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Ninety-nine percent of offenders were male. Almost all of the cases with male victims involved male offenders. The offenders were much older than their victims; 76% were age 26 or older; 47% were more than 20 years older than their victims.

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.


There were also other forms of deception and misrepresentation. Twenty-six percent of offenders lied at some point about their physical appearance or some other aspect of their identity like their name, family status or employment. Altogether, 52% lied about something at some point in the relationship, but deceptions about being considerably older adults interested in sexual relationships with teenagers did not occur in most of these crimes.

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.


In summary, most Internet-initiated sex crimes involved teenagers too young to consent to sexual intercourse that were described by respondents as in love with or close to the offenders they had met online. These were nonforcible crimes, committed by men who were much older than their victims. The victims knew they were interacting with adults who were interested in them sexually. The length and variety of communications and multiple face-to-face meetings in most cases indicate that many victims viewed their interactions with much older adult offenders as desired relationships.


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.

First, the offenders in these crimes do not appear to be pedophiles. Pedophilia is a sexual deviation involving sexual attraction to prepubescent children [..]. The victims in these cases were young adolescents. Ninety-nine percent were age 13 to 17, and none were younger than 12.
Second, although they undoubtedly manipulated juveniles in a variety of ways, the offenders in these Internet-initiated crimes did not generally deceive victims about being older adults who were interested in sexual relationships. Victims usually knew this before their first face-to-face encounters with offenders.
Third, with a few frightening and dangerous exceptions, the majority of offenders did not use force or coercion to sexually abuse their victims and did not abduct them. Victims, who were predominantly young teenagers, typically agreed to meet these adults, knowing of their sexual interest. They engaged in sexual intercourse, or other sexual activity, with the adults, often on multiple occasions.
Fourth, it is misleading to characterize the offenders in these cases as “strangers” to their victims, because in most cases they had communicated extensively with victims, both online and off before they actually met in person. Offenders used these interactions to establish romantic or otherwise close relationships before they first met victims face-to-face.

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.

They should be informed of why such romances end quickly, even when not discovered, and how frequently the offenders have other partners.
They should know that corresponding with adults trolling for teenage partners can encourage offenders and endanger other youth, even when relationships are confined to the Internet.
They need to be told bluntly that any sexual pictures they pose for may end up on the Internet or as evidence in a courtroom.

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.

Vulnerable populations

Poor relationships with parents [...]
Loneliness and depression [...]
Gay or questioning boys [...]

“Compliant” or “statutory” victims

Moreover, those who provide services to adolescent victims need to understand that their clients may view these relationships quite differently than law enforcement, mental health practitioners, and other adults. Some practitioners and law enforcement investigators have begun to pay more specific attention to adolescent victims of Internet-initiated and other nonforcible or statutory sex crimes [...].

These victims, sometimes referred to as “compliant” or “statutory victims,” may actively cooperate with offenders and develop strong sexual and emotional attachments to them. These youth may not see themselves as victims and may resist cooperating with investigators.

Traditional medical and mental health protocols for handling child sexual abuse victims may not prepare practitioners to deal with adolescents who are victims of nonforcible sex crimes. Training and protocols should be reviewed to assure that adolescent victims are treated appropriately and compassionately.

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