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.
What makes our national obsession with sexual predation destructive is that it is used to justify systematically excluding young people from public life, both online and off. Stopping children from connecting to strangers is seen as critical for their own protection, even though learning to navigate strangers is a key part of growing up. Youth are discouraged from lingering in public parks or navigating malls without parental supervision. They don’t learn how to respectfully and conscientiously navigate new people because they are taught to fear all who are unknown.
The other problem with our obsession with sexual predators is that it distracts parents and educators. Everyone rallies to teach children to look out for and fear rare dangers without giving them the tools for managing more common forms of harm that they might encounter. Far too many young people are raped and sexually victimized in this country. Only a minuscule number of them are harmed at the hands of strangers, online or off. Most who will be abused will suffer at the hands of their classmates and peers.
In a culture of abstinence-only education, schools don’t want to address any aspect of sexual and reproductive health for fear of upsetting parents. As a result, we fail to give young people the tools to handle sexual victimization. When the message is “just say no,” we shame young people who were sexually abused or violated.
It’s high time that we walk away from our nightmare scenarios and focus on addressing the serious injustices that exist. The world we live in isn’t fair and many youth who are most at-risk do not have concerned parents looking out for them. Because we have stopped raising children as a community, adults are often too afraid to step on other parents’ toes. Yet, we need adults who are looking out for more than just their children. Furthermore, our children need us to talk candidly about sexual victimization without resorting to boogeymen.
While it’s important to protect youth from dangers, a society based on fear-mongering is not healthy. Let’s instead talk about how we can help teenagers be passionate, engaged, constructive members of society rather than how we can protect them from statistically anomalous dangers. Let’s understand those teens who are truly at risk; these teens often have the least support.
(This piece was first published at Psychology Today.)