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Cyber Savvy:
Supporting Safe and
Responsible Internet Use

Sex and the Internet:
Challenging the Myths


In the past year or so, a vast amount of news coverage has addressed the issue of online sexual predators. The volume and tone of much of that coverage has succeeded in creating a false impression of what actually is going on. The degree of fear mongering is out of proportion to the actual dangers -- and is creating significant concern.

Young people, the vast majority of whom generally are making safe choices online (but who also might make a mistake or get into a risky situation), perceive that adults are so fearful about Internet issues, it’s unsafe to communicate with them about any online concerns. And yet, it’s essential that we adults -- "Digital Immigrants" -- gain a better understanding of the risks our young "Digital Natives" are facing.

It is necessary to understand that the vast majority of young people who are sexually abused are abused by someone in their own family or community. It is probable that those local abusers now also are using the Internet and other technologies to groom and maintain control over those young people. For example, a teacher in my community was just arrested for sexual abuse of some students -- and he was communicating with his victims electronically.

With respect to the concerns presented by online sexual predators, some significant misperceptions must be addressed so we can get to the point of providing accurate guidance to address the real concerns.


Adult predators abound.

Want More?

For more Education World articles by Nancy Willard, see

Keeping Kids Safe Online

Insuring Student Privacy on the Internet

Schools, the Internet, and Copyright Law

Nancy Willard’s Archive

Let’s start with the statement "One in five youth have been sexually solicited online." (More recently, the statistic has been changed to "one in seven.") When people hear that statement, they assume that the "solicitation" has been made by a dangerous adult predator. That isn’t what the studies revealed, however.

The figures above come from two studies, conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center: Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth and Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later. In those studies, teens were asked to report on "any situation where someone on the Internet attempted to get them to talk about sex when they did not want to or asked them unwanted sexual questions about themselves." Now, you tell me how often that happens in middle and high schools every day.

Sure enough, in the first study, 48 percent of the "sexual solicitors" were thought to be other teens, 20 percent were thought to between 18 and 25, and 4 percent were thought to be older than 25, the remainder were unknown. In the second study, 43 percent were thought to be other teens, 30 percent were thought to be between 18 and 25, and 9 percent were thought to be over 25. Only 4 percent were adults over 25. Of course, the identified age is speculative because many people, teens and adults, lie about their age. More significantly, 75 percent of the young people in the first study and 66 percent in the second study indicated they were not upset or afraid.

Now hidden within that data are incidents that present significant concerns. Questions we must ask include: What behavior was actually measured? How does that behavior relate to predatory grooming by adults? Did the study provide evidence of predation or was the behavior primarily sexual harassment/ propositioning? And most significantly, how can we effectively prepare young people to avoid placing themselves in positions of possible risk online, detect when they are at risk, and respond effectively?


The child is always the victim.

The following statement is from the FBI document A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety. "Understand, even if your child was a willing participant in any form of sexual exploitation, that he/she is not at fault and is the victim. The offender always bears the complete responsibility for his or her actions."

Legally, that is accurate, but it’s also necessary to recognize that some teens are engaging in behavior that appears to be intentional and directed at arranging sexual "hook-ups" with others. Take the example of Christina Long, a 13-year old girl who accidentally was killed while having sex with a man she met online. (H. A. Valetk, "Teens and the Internet: Disturbing ‘Camgirl’ Sites Deserve a Closer Look," Findlaw Legal News and Commentary, January 23, 2003.). Reportedly, Christina was using the Internet to make arrangements to meet men for sex. Her user name was "2hot2handle" and her Web site with provocative pictures was entitled "Sexy me for you to see." Note also, that all the situations reported on Dateline’s To Catch a Predator involve arrangements for "hook-ups" with an apparently willing teen.

The adults who engage in this activity clearly are taking advantage of the young people and committing a crime. But to develop effective intervention strategies, it is necessary to recognize that, for some teens, engaging with online sexual predators is an intentional activity.


Online predators deceive teens about their intentions or use personal contact information to track victims and abduct them.

Internet-Initiated Sex Crimes Against Minors: Implications for Prevention Based on Findings from a National Study, another study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center of actual arrests where teens met in person with an online sexual predator, found that deception about sexual motivations was rare.

The offenders openly sexually solicited the victims. The victims knew they were interacting with men who were interested in them sexually. The victims went willingly with the offender and most met with the offender more than once. After the arrest, half the victims described themselves as in love with, or good friends with, the offender. Unfortunately, they did not ask further about the other half, who presumably met to have sex with men they were not good friends with.

(The victims, by the way, were between the ages of 13 and 15; 75 percent were girls, 25 percent were boys. That does not mean that 16 year olds are not meeting with online predators, but if they meet willingly, there is no crime. It is important to note that predators do not appear to be targeting children. Young men who are exploring sexual orientation questions likely are more at risk.)


We can teach teens about online sexual predators without using the word "sex" or discussing risky sexual encounters.

Two leading Internet safety education programs for middle school students, NetSmartz and I-Safe do not use the word "sex;" do not discuss the sexual intentions of predators; do not address why these sexual relationships are risky. Why? Apparently because middle school students should not know anything about sex. (!)

The common guidance provided to teens about Internet concerns is, "Tell a trusted adult if you come across any information or anyone sends you a message that makes you feel scared or uncomfortable." My question is, if adults are too uncomfortable to talk about risky sex with teens, then how do we expect teens to be comfortable reporting to adults that they have received an unacceptable sexual message or that a person they are communicating with online has engaged them in discussions about sex?

In an earlier article, I discussed the issues related to online stranger literacy. A proactive strategy for addressing the very real concerns of online sexual predation is grounded in effective stranger literacy skills. But teens also must know how to prevent themselves from getting into risky situations, detect when someone unsafe is communicating with them, and respond effectively.

Unfortunately, those teens who intentionally seek out those types of online relationships are not likely to listen to important safety messages. To address that concern, we need to educate the counselors and others who are working with youth at risk -- and encourage savvy teens to report to a trusted adult if they know that another teen is making bad choices online.

My new book, Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly, has just been published. I have a new Web site for the book. The URL is On that Web site are free, reproducible booklets -- one for parents and one for teens. In addition to guidance about stranger literacy, I provide the following guidance about online sexual predators.

Don’t Hook-Up With Online Losers/Online Sexual Predators
Online sexual predators are older people, generally men, who are using the Internet to form relationships with teens that will ultimately result in sexual activity. Online sexual predators also might try to get teens to send them sexually explicit images.

Recognize Predator Techniques
Online predators use techniques called "grooming" to manipulate and seduce teens. They look for teens who are vulnerable or who show signs they are interested in, or have questions about, sex. They are very friendly, offer many compliments, and might offer gifts or opportunities. They will try to become a teen’s best online secret "friend" and might interfere with a teen’s relationships with others. When they have established trust, they will start to talk about sexual issues. They want teens to think of them as a "sexual mentor." Some teens are embarrassed to report those interactions because the predator has manipulated them into talking about or engaging in sexual activities. Teens must understand that predators are master manipulators.

Don’t Attract Online Losers
Don’t do things online that could attract a predator. Don’t post sexually provocative images, join online groups to discuss sex, share intimate personal information, or share information that makes you appear vulnerable.

What You Must Know

  • Sexual predators are not lovers or mentors. They are abusers and losers.
  • Meeting with a sexual predator could result in sexually transmitted disease, forced engagement in risky sex, abduction, and even murder.
  • Help get rid of online losers. Save all evidence of any contact by a possible predator and report it to a trusted adult, the Web site or service, the police, and the agency in your country that handles these reports.

Friends don’t let friends hook-up with online losers! If you think a friend has become involved with an online predator, encourage your friend to terminate contact and report it. If your friend is not willing to report it, tell a trusted adult yourself.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Education World. [content block]

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