In March, London's Daily Mail reported that a British elementary school had obscured the heads of children in group photographs on the school's website with oval smiley faces, "apparently to protect them from paedophiles." The widespread anxieties underlying that bizarre incident are almost entirely off the mark, according to a recent review of the evidence concerning Internet-related sex crimes.
Writing in the February-March American Psychologist, Janis Wolak and three colleagues at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center conclude that "the stereotype of the Internet child molester who uses trickery and violence to assault children is largely inaccurate." In their survey of more than 2,500 law enforcement agencies, "99 percent of victims of Internet-initiated sex crimes…were 13 to 17 years old, and none were younger than 12." The cases typically involved teenagers who knew they were talking to adults online, agreed to meet them specifically for sex, and were not forced or threatened with violence.
In short, Internet-related sex crimes are overwhelmingly cases of statutory rape rather than child molestation.
Based on telephone surveys of 10-to-17-year-old Internet users, Wolak et al. also question commonly held beliefs about what kinds of online behavior expose teenagers to the risk of such encounters. Neither posting personal information nor participating in social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace was by itself associated with victimization. Instead the researchers found that "youths who interacted online with unknown people and also engaged in a high number of different risky online behaviors" (such as "having unknown people on a buddy list, talking online to unknown people about sex, seeking pornography online, [and] being rude or nasty online") were "much more likely to receive aggressive sexual solicitations than were youths who interacted online with unknown people but restrained their risky behaviors."
The idea that the Internet has fostered a "shocking increase in the sexual exploitation of children," as Newsweek put it in 2001, also appears to be unfounded. Wolak and her colleagues estimate that Internet-related sex crimes account for something like 7 percent of all statutory rapes. They note that "several sex crime and abuse indicators have shown marked declines during the same period that Internet use has been expanding."