Minors are targeted by traditional sexual predators online and through the use of digital technologies more often than many people realize. The number of reported cases vastly underestimates the real problem, as young people often fail to report victimization or attempted victimizations. They do this out of fear, shame or feeling that it was somehow their fault that this occurred.
In addition to traditional sexual predators, young people are frequently targeted by their peers, either following a break-up, as part of a sexual harassment cyberbullying campaign or through “sextortion” (when someone uses sexual images created by the victim voluntarily to blackmail them into performing sexual acts or taking more images against their will).
Network administrators and moderators are often in the best position to spot risky behavior, grooming or inappropriate contact. You are an important part of the team when protecting minors from sexual exploitation and predation.
The kinds of sexual exploitation risks that exist online:
Direct grooming of minors for offline meetings: Most have heard about cases where adult sexual predators contact minors online, seeking to create friendships, trusted relationships or romance with a minor. Dateline’s Chris Hansen’s “To Catch a Predator”and similar television series highlight the range of predators willing to show up at a minor’s home expecting sex.
When these cases started, in the late 90s, the predators often posed as another minor to get in under the young person’s “stranger danger radar.” They would be a cute teen (glossy photos and all) and convince the minor that they were their long sought-for soulmate. Later they may confess to being slightly older, expressing concern that their “soulmate” might reject them for their white lies about their age, professing that it was done merely out of love.
If done correctly, the victim would protest that “there is nothing [they] could do to cause them to stop loving them,” and forgive them within a short period of time. They would often even be flattered that an “older” lover would be interested in them (making them feel more attractive and mature). They are often additionally flattered that someone would go to such lengths to earn their love, even by lying about their age.
While they may confess to being older, they rarely confess to their true age initially. They may claim to be 23, and really be 41 (such as in the case of Katie Tarbox who was sexually molested by an investment banker from Los Angeles posing as a 23-year-old.)
More recent trends show that the teens (and preteens) are almost as willing to engage with someone who admits to being an adult at the start of the grooming process. These teens (and preteens) may otherwise be at risk (such as broken homes, special needs, self-destructive, facing a family or personal crisis) and see this as a way out, diversion or a path to love and security offered by a “caring” adult.
Sometimes these at-risk teens and preteens actively solicit relationships or sexual encounters with adults for the same reasons or merely for attention.