Protecting students from internet luring and sexual exploitation
It’s a nightmare scenario: He clicks through social media platforms and chat rooms looking for a vulnerable young person. He is clever and manipulative, knowing which questions to ask and what information to ask for. She is flattered by the attention and affection shared by this seemingly kind adult. The exchanges continue, sometimes over a matter of days, sometimes for months. They go on for as long as it takes. Eventually the conversation becomes sexual. Nude images are exchanged, desires are shared, and a meeting is arranged at a local motel. Hopefully a parent, friend or teacher learns about the situation and puts a stop to it. Otherwise, the meeting takes place and lives are changed.
In the news
Every once in a while, stories like this surface in news reports. Of course, people are only hearing about the incidents that make it to the news – there are many stories of adults luring children into compromising situations that are either never revealed or are kept under wraps by concerned family members and terrified victims. This is all part of the insidious world of internet luring and sexual exploitation.
Not a growing phenomenon
Guidance counsellors often learn about this form of child abuse from either the victims themselves or concerned friends and family members. While the prospect of young people connecting with manipulative adults’ intent on luring them into risky behaviour is disturbing, people can rest assured that internet luring is not a rampant and growing phenomenon. Police statistics indicate that only a fraction of a percentage of youth are victims of internet luring (three cases per 100,000 youth in Canada) and even if luring cases are grossly under-reported, the numbers come nowhere near the epidemic proportions that are sometimes indicated in the media. In short, internet luring is a concern, but it is something that can be avoided through strong parenting, thoughtful teaching and a judicious use of digital literacy skills by today’s youth.
Who is at risk?
The overwhelming majority of young people are not at risk of being a victim of internet luring. However, there is a commonly accepted general profile of a luring victim. These individuals tend to be young people who are:
- 13-17 years of age
- Males who are either gay or questioning
- A victim of physical or sexual abuse
- In major conflict with parents or guardians
- Willing to engage in risky behaviour
The last point seems to be the most important. Contemporary research indicates that youth willing to engage in risky behaviour are most vulnerable when it comes to be taking advantage of by manipulative adults. This prospect applies to both online and offline activities. Put simply, if a young person is convinced to pursue a path that clearly crosses a line of commonly accepted behaviour into an area of known risk, they are potential victims of exploitation. In terms of internet luring, there are some specific actions that bring with them a higher degree of risk. Young people who engage in the following behaviours are more likely to become victim of luring and sexual exploitation:
- share personal information with an online stranger
- visit and participate in adult-oriented chat rooms or social media platforms
- engage in sexual conversations with an online stranger
- share nude images either online or via SMS
While engaging in any or all of the behaviours above do not, in themselves, indicate that someone will be a victim of internet luring and sexual exploitation, they are commonly accepted markers of a luring victim. Also, these are the markers that the perpetrators of this crime look for when pursuing victims. They are also aware of the fact that the gateway into the personal lives of young people can be frighteningly easy, as is indicated by the following statistics:
- 30 per cent of youth say they use their real names and addresses when signing up for online platforms that require social media accounts
- 16 per cent of youth have intentionally visited pornographic web sites
- 9 per cent of youth have visited and participated in an adult chat room
While these numbers indicate that most young people are not positioning themselves to be exploited, too many are leaving themselves vulnerable to manipulative adults.
Who are the perpetrators?
The perpetrators of internet luring tend to be males between the ages of 18 and 34. This demographic accounts for 60 per cent of those who have been tried and convicted of internet luring under the Canadian Criminal Code. Of that group, half are between the ages of 18 and 24 and the other half are between the ages of 25 and 34. However, a United States study suggests that the majority of luring offences are committed by people under the age of 21 with only 10 percent of internet luring perpetrators being older than 21.
The perpetrators are very selective in their targeting of victims. They know who to target (see above) and this is why they are often successful in their attempts to convince their victims to meet and engage in a sexual encounter. Experts studying internet luring think it is important to dispel the myth of the pedophile hunched over a computer tricking kids into having sex with them. Instead, people should foster the idea of a younger man bent on manipulating a vulnerable young person into engaging in sexual activity. In fact, their efforts are so successful that, in over 70 per cent of cases, the perpetrator and the victim meet on more than one occasion. In the end, trickery is seldom used by the perpetrators of internet luring. There is a devious transparency involved in the methods used to convince a vulnerable young person into a high-risk situation.
What can we do?
The best thing a parent, teacher or guidance counsellor can do in the face of the threat of internet luring is to educate themselves and potential victims about the existence of this crime. Parents should be engaged in the lives of their children, insisting that computers be kept in visible locations in the home and that a child’s smartphone be considered a family device they can access easily (without unnecessarily disturbing the privacy of their son or daughter). Teachers should be instructing students on the merits of digital literacy and critical thinking, reminding students that sharing personal information, compromising pictures and engaging in relationships with adults constitutes a risk to their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Meanwhile, guidance counsellors should be on alert for students who fall into the at-risk category and develop strategies for implementation when students bring their internet luring stories into their office. These guidelines should be of some assistance:
- use a team approach to the problem. Consult the school social worker, child youth worker and school administration as a preliminary step after learning about a case of child luring.
- handle the student with care. Be as calm as possible while telling them about the necessary next steps in dealing with the situation.
- have a member of the team contact the student’s parent or guardian to discuss what has happened.
- have the administrator contact the police so that child luring charges can be pursued.
These suggestions constitute a rough idea of what can be done when encountering cases of child luring and sexual exploitation. Different cases often warrant additional steps. One obstacle a counsellor may encounter is resistance from the victim. Often the young person has been groomed into thinking that the adult who lured them is the “love of their life.” Based on this belief, they will be very reluctant to do or say anything that will get the adult perpetrator of this crime into any kind of trouble. While internet luring and sexual exploitation are not an immediate concern for most adolescents, the few that are affected are the very people that wind up sitting across from a psychologist, child youth worker or guidance counsellor to reveal their victimization. It is important to be aware and alert of this form of manipulation so that appropriate measures can be taken to protect the students in your care.
By: Sean Dolan
Internet luring and the law
In 2002, lawmakers in Canada had to re-write the Criminal Code to combat a new tactic being used by sexual predators to gain access to potential victims. Law enforcement agencies were encountering young sexual assault victims who were being lured and groomed by adults for the purposes of sex via internet chat rooms. The new provision in the Criminal Code made it illegal for adults “to communicate with children over the Internet for the purpose of committing a sexual offence.” The law had teeth with 75 per cent of those charged with internet luring convicted of the offence.