We have all heard reports of online child molesters who haunt websites popular with children and teens; assume false identities; make use of the details on public profiles to entice victims to a meeting; then abduct them. Any parent’s blood would run cold at the thought.
Far more often, however, it is statutory rape rather than abduction that results from online predation .
Research shows that the vast majority of teens who interact with an unknown individual online are aware when that individual is an adult, whether the interaction is via email, instant messaging or a chatroom. Any deception that takes place is more likely to involve love than identity.
If the adult is a predator (typically 10 or more years older than the victim), sex is usually mentioned up front, and most victims who meet predators “face to face” anticipate having sex. As many as 73% of victims have repeat sexual encounters with the predator.
This is not to suggest that our children do not need protection from online predators. To the contrary, what this research reveals is that our children remain vulnerable throughout their teens. A dire warning about abduction will not suffice to dissuade them from dangerous activity.
What is needed is a three-pronged approach, directed at tweens and young teens; older teens; and young people of all ages inclined toward high risk behavior.
Naivete (Ages 12-14)
Tweens and young teens may mimic sophistication. They do not, however, have the maturity to engage in intimate relationships. Nor can they protect themselves against the advances of a predator without training.
Children in this age range need to be educated about the various types of websites that exist, and alerted to the risky situations they can encounter online.
Parents and guardians should clarify that it is wrong for an adult to make romantic overtures toward a child, attempt to elicit a sexual response from a child, or take advantage of a child’s curiosity about sex.
It is important that tweens and young teens be provided opportunities to practice resistance and refusal techniques. Children should be assured that rudeness toward an adult is entirely acceptable in self-defense.
Sex and Romance (Ages 15-17)
While a growing interest in sex and romance is normal among older teens, those in this age range should be warned against discussing sex online with strangers, seeking out pornography, and sending sexually explicit photos. These behaviors are known to attract the attention of predators.
Older teens should be advised that some adults deliberately provoke and exploit sexual feelings by teens. They should be informed of the grooming tactics employed by online predators, and the criminal ramifications of age-of-consent laws .
They should, also, be advised of the problems associated with a relationship with an older partner, specifically, the inequality of power, experience, and judgment between a teen and an adult; and the negative impact of a sexual relationship with an adult on healthy emotional development by the teen.
Regardless of age, children in this category have a history of sexual or other abuse, concerns about their sexual orientation and/or patterns of risk taking online and off.
In search of love and attention, these children may suffer from loneliness and depression or exhibit chronic disciplinary problems. They are more likely than children without such issues to frequent chatrooms (especially risky locations, as far as online predation).
Since these children are likely to have difficult family relationships, it may fall to professionals like counselors, teachers, and coaches to warn them of online dangers.
Online communication is rapid and private, allowing predators to establish relationships and seduce victims away from the watchful eyes of parents or guardians. Differences in age, background, and status are less obvious online. The sense of privacy can accelerate the rate at which a relationship develops, while removing inhibitions and social constraints.
Equipping our children to defend themselves against online predators may be a more effective means of protecting them, as they enter their teens, than hoping they will never make contact with a stranger or issuing warnings that undermine parental credibility.
 American Psychologist, “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims” by J. Wolak et al, February-March 2008, https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-632111.pdf.
 We as a society acknowledge that sex with children is particularly heinous. The inability to consent by reason of age is, therefore, assumed under law. Unfortunately, statutory rape is at least as underreported as rape. Reliable statistics are, therefore, difficult to come by. That statutory rape can take place without force does not imply that children and teens are not, also, raped by force.
 The age of consent varies from one state to another. Generally, it is between 14 y.o. – 18 y.o.