Internet-initiated Sex Crimes against Minors : Implications for Prevention Based on Findings from a National Study

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JOURNAL OF ADOLESCENT HEALTH 2004;35:424.e11– 424.e20
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Internet-initiated Sex Crimes against Minors:
Implications for Prevention Based on Findings from a
National Study
JANIS WOLAK, J.D., DAVID FINKELHOR, Ph.D., AND KIMBERLY MITCHELL, Ph.D.
Purpose: To describe the characteristics of episodes in
KEY WORDS:
which juveniles became victims of sex crimes committed
Internet
by people they met through the Internet.
Adolescence
Methods: A national survey of a stratified random
Sexual assault
sample of 2574 law enforcement agencies conducted
between October 2001 and July 2002. Telephone inter-
views were conducted with local, state, and federal law

Many young people who use the Internet encounter
enforcement investigators concerning 129 sexual offenses
sexual overtures [1]. Advising families and young
against juvenile victims that originated with online en-
people about how to avoid these overtures and how
counters.
Results: Victims in these crimes were primarily 13-
to handle them when they occur has become a new
through 15-year-old teenage girls (75%) who met adult
responsibility of health-care professionals, health ed-
offenders (76% older than 25) in Internet chat rooms.
ucators, and child welfare experts. In the absence of
Most offenders did not deceive victims about the fact
more scientific sources, professionals have had to
that they were adults who were interested in sexual
rely on media reports, which have focused attention
relationships. Most victims met and had sex with the
on Internet-related sex crimes, particularly those
adults on more than one occasion. Half of the victims
involving young victims who meet offenders online.
were described as being in love with or feeling close
These media descriptions of Internet-initiated sex
bonds with the offenders. Almost all cases with male
offenses against young people have emphasized
victims involved male offenders. Offenders used vio-
their predatory nature, stressing how the Internet
lence in 5% of the episodes.
facilitates deception. Internet molesters have been
Conclusions: Health care professionals and educators,
parents and media need to be aware of the existence,
portrayed as pedophiles who, pretending to be peers
nature and real life dynamics of these online relation-
or benevolent adults, strike up relationships with
ships among adolescents. Information about Internet
children and then stalk or lure them into encounters
safety should include frank discussion about why these
that end in abduction, rape, or even murder.
relationships are inappropriate, criminal, and detrimen-
This has led to prevention messages that advise
tal to the developmental needs of youth. © Society for
youth not to correspond online with strangers, give
Adolescent Medicine, 2004
out identifying information, or go alone to meet
individuals they have met only online. Beyond the
fact that this advice is widely ignored and seen as
unrealistic by many young people [1,2], there are
also questions about the accuracy of this character-
From the Crimes against Children Research Center, University of
New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire.
ization of sex offenses that occur as a result of
Address correspondence to: Janis Wolak, Crimes against Children
Internet meetings. Basing prevention recommenda-
Research Center, University of New Hampshire, 10 West Edge Drive,
tions on media accounts of egregious crimes can lead
Durham, NH 03824. E-mail: [email protected]
Manuscript accepted May 29, 2004.
to misguided public policy. Sex crime dangers have
1054-139X/04/$–see front matter
Published by Elsevier Inc., 360 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010
doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2004.05.006

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WOLAK ET AL
JOURNAL OF ADOLESCENT HEALTH Vol. 35, No. 5
been particularly prone to mischaracterization [3,4],
We used a two-phase methodology of a mail
leading, for example, to an under-emphasis on the
survey followed by telephone interviews. We
roles of family members, acquaintances and other
adapted this data collection strategy from a similar
youth in the commission of these offenses.
methodology developed to investigate the inci-
Also, these standard prevention messages seem to
dence and characteristics of stereotypical child
be crafted without taking into account much of what
abduction cases [8,9].
is known about youth social life and Internet prac-
tices. In fact, most adolescents who use the Internet
converse online, at least casually, with people they
haven’t met face-to-face; many form online friend-
Phase 1 Mail Survey Sample
ships that become offline friendships; and most of
In the first phase, we sent mail surveys to a
these friendships are with other youth [5,6]. Also,
national sample of 2574 state, county, and local law
some youth form online relationships with adults
enforcement agencies. We created a stratified sam-
that appear to be benign or even beneficial [6]. At the
ple, dividing law enforcement agencies into three
same time, one study has demonstrated that youth
sampling frames based on their specialization or
were more likely to form online friendships or ro-
training in investigating Internet sex crimes
mances if they were troubled or, depending on
against minors, so we could get information from
gender, had high levels of conflict or low levels of
agencies that specialized in these crimes and still
communication with parents [7]. Adolescents with
allow every agency in the country a chance to be
these sorts of problems may be more vulnerable to
selected in the sample. The first frame consisted of
online victimization.
79 specialized agencies mandated to investigate
We designed the present study to examine the
Internet sex crimes against minors, including 32
characteristics of sex crime victims, ages 17 and
state and local agencies comprising 30 federally
younger, who met sex offenders on the Internet and
funded Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC)
the dynamics of those crimes in an effort to provide
regional Task Forces, 43 federally funded ICAC
a systematic and scientifically based description of
satellites and four federal agencies, two of which
Internet-initiated sex offenses committed against
ultimately participated. The second frame consisted
young people in the United States. We addressed
of law enforcement agencies that we considered
several questions: (a) What were the demographic
more likely than other agencies to have investi-
characteristics of the victims and offenders? (b)
gated Internet sex crimes against minors because
Where and how did online relationships arise? (c)
their staff had received training about these types
What was the role of deception? (d) How did face-
of cases. We identified 1668 trained agencies by
to-face meetings develop? (e) What kinds of sex
using lists acquired from training programs. The
crimes occurred and how often were violence, coer-
third frame consisted of all other local, county, and
cion or abduction involved?
state law enforcement agencies across the United
States, a total of 13,586 agencies. The sample was
drawn using an annually updated database of
Methods
local, county, and state law enforcement agencies
The National Juvenile Online Victimization Study
included in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports files
used a national survey of federal, state, county, and
or the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Directory of Law
local law enforcement agencies to collect data about
Enforcement Agencies. The agencies in the first
Internet-related sex crimes with juvenile victims. We
and second frames were cross-referenced in the
surveyed law enforcement agencies because the in-
database to avoid duplication.
cidence of completed Internet-related sex crimes
We included 100% of the first frame agencies, 50%
with juvenile victims is too small to use moderate-
of the second frame, and 12% of the third frame
sized general population surveys [6] and because
agencies in the sample. Decisions about sample con-
law enforcement agencies, as “first responders” to
struction were based on the number of agencies in
these crimes, have more complete information than
the population of each frame, our expectation that
other sources, like medical and mental health care
many of the first and second frame agencies and few
providers. Cases were eligible for the study if they
of the third frame agencies would have eligible cases
were Internet-related, had victims under the age of
to report, and practical considerations such as cost
18, and involved arrests made between July 1, 2000
and processing time that limited our overall sample
and June 30, 2001.
size. To maximize response rates, we followed an

November 2004
INTERNET-INITIATED SEX CRIMES
424.e13
Figure 1. Description of N-JOV stratified national sample and dispositions of mail survey. *Eleven agencies (1%) were ineligible because they lacked
jurisdiction to investigate Internet sex crimes against minors. These were mostly small towns that relied on county or other agencies to conduct criminal
investigations. **Fifty-four agencies (

1%) were ineligible because they lacked jurisdiction to investigate Internet sex crimes against minors.
adapted version of the “total design” mail survey
cases. (The term “identified” victims denotes victims
methodology [10]. We used first class mail to send
that were identified and contacted by law enforce-
surveys, personalized cover letters, and business
ment in the course of the investigation.) For agencies
reply envelopes to the heads of the agencies in the
with between 4 and 15 cases, approximately half of
sample. Then, at intervals of between 2 and 4 weeks,
the cases that did not have identified victims were
we sent reminder postcards, followed by second and
randomly selected for follow-up interviews. In agen-
third mailings of the survey to the heads of agencies
cies that reported more than 15 cases, approximately
that had not responded. The overall response rate
one-quarter of the cases with no identified victims
was 88% (see Figure 1).
were randomly selected. In some agencies, we could
not find out which cases had identified victims, so
we sampled from all cases, using the sampling
Phase 2 Telephone Interview Sample
procedure described above.
In response to the mail survey, 385 agencies reported
Telephone interviewers contacted and obtained
a total of 1723 cases ending in arrests involving
consent from a key investigator or otherwise
Internet sex crimes against minors. The second phase
knowledgeable person for each case. Six trained
consisted of interviews with law enforcement inves-
interviewers completed 630 detailed telephone in-
tigators to gather information about case, offender,
terviews between October 2001 and July 2002. Of
and victim characteristics.
the 1723 cases reported by law enforcement in
We designed a sampling procedure that took into
response to the mail survey, 37% were not selected
account the number of cases reported by an agency,
for the sample; and 16% of cases were ineligible
so we would not unduly burden respondents in
(see Table 1). Ineligible sampled cases were not
agencies with many cases. If an agency reported
replaced in the sample because one study goal was
between one and three Internet-related cases, we
to estimate annual numbers of arrests, for which
conducted follow-up interviews for every case.
we used statistical weighting procedures that re-
Eighty-five percent of the responding agencies were
quired nonreplacement. The original 630 com-
in this group. For agencies that reported more than
pleted interviews were reduced to 612 cases after
three cases, we conducted interviews for all cases
we determined that 18 interviews duplicated other
that involved identified victims and sampled other
completed interviews.

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WOLAK ET AL
JOURNAL OF ADOLESCENT HEALTH Vol. 35, No. 5
Table 1. Dispositions of N-JOV Telephone Interviews
2nd
3rd
1st frame:
frame:
frame:
Specialized
Trained
Other
Number of
Agenciesa
Agencies
Agencies
Total
Cases reported in mail surveys
999
545
179
1723
Not selected for sample
564 (56%)
58 (11%)
24 (13%)
646 (37%)
Ineligibleb
73 (7%)
147 (27%)
61 (34%)
281 (16%)
Number of cases in sample
362
340
94
796
Nonrespondersc
42 (12%)
50 (15%)
9 (9%)
101 (13%)
Refusals
13 (3%)
10 (3%)
2 (2%)
25 (3%)
Duplicated and invalid cases
21 (6%)
14 (4%)
5 (5%)
40 (5%)
Completed interviews
286 (79%)
266 (78%)
78 (83%)
630 (79%)
Duplicate cases deletede
11
6
1
18
Final number
275
260
77
612
Note: Some percentages may not add to 100% because of rounding.
a Includes cases from federal agencies.
b Cases did not meet eligibility requirements of study. In most cases, the arrest did not occur in the timeframe of the study.
c Could not schedule interviews for various reasons.
d Interviewers realized these were duplicate cases and did not conduct interviews.
e Cases were determined to be duplicates after interviews were completed.
Subsample Used in this Study
The Phase 2 telephone interview instrument con-
Internet sex crimes against minors include a di-
sisted of multiple sections, some of which were used
verse range of offenses [11]. The group examined
in each interview and others whose use depended on
in this article comprises Internet-initiated cases,
the facts of the case. In the interviews about Internet-
defined as cases in which offenders met identified
initiated cases, a Preliminary Section screened cases
victims online (n
129). Seventy-three percent of
for eligibility, an Online Meeting Section collected
these Internet-initiated offenses were completed
information about the Internet-initiated crime, and
crimes involving sexual assault or the production
Offender and Victim Sections gathered data about
of child pornography. The remaining offenses
the demographic, family, emotional, and behavioral
were attempted crimes. We refer to the alleged
characteristics of the offender and victim. The inter-
perpetrators as “offenders,” however, not all were
view included over 130 questions, many with sub-
convicted. At the time of data collection, 77% of
questions, but the numbers of questions used varied
offenders had pled guilty or been convicted;
considerably based on the facts of each case. Most
charges had been dropped against 4% and case
interviews took between 30 and 45 minutes to com-
outcomes were pending or unknown against 19%.
plete.
The interviewers attended a 2-day training session
led by the researchers that provided extensive details
about the background, purpose, and instrumentation
Instrumentation
of the study, and they participated in a series of
The mail survey instrument asked if respondent
practice and pilot interviews. The two chief research-
agencies had made any arrests between July 1, 2000
ers reviewed the data collection regularly to monitor
and June 30, 2001 for crimes that involved the
for consistency.
attempted or completed sexual exploitation of a
The study was conducted with the approval of the
minor in which the offender and victim first met on
University of New Hampshire Institutional Review
the Internet. It also screened for other types of
Board and complied with confidentiality regulations
Internet-related sex crimes. If respondents had such
mandated for research funded by the U.S. Depart-
cases, we asked them to list the case numbers and the
ment of Justice.
names of the investigating officers for each case they
reported. The survey took about 5 minutes to com-
plete for agencies that had no cases to report, but
Variables
completion time varied for agencies with relevant
We asked respondents to describe victims in terms of
cases.
gender, age, race, household income and educational

November 2004
INTERNET-INITIATED SEX CRIMES
424.e15
level, and type of community. When we established
rooms included sites oriented to teens, to specific
that a crime involved a victim who met an offender
geographic locations, to dating and romance, to gays,
over the Internet, we asked respondents a series of
and in a few cases, to sexual encounters between
questions about the characteristics and dynamics of
adults and minors. Offenders who met victims on-
the crime, including offender characteristics; how the
line in venues other than chat rooms appeared to use
victim and offender met online; whether the offender
profiles posted by victims. One offender targeted his
was deceptive about age, sexual motives or other
victim by searching profiles for the word “flirt.”
aspects of identity; whether a face-to-face meeting
Another found a victim’s birth date in her profile and
took place; what illegal acts occurred; whether the
sent her an electronic birthday card to initiate the
crime involved coercion or force; the nature of any
acquaintance.
bond between offender and victim, and other details.
Most offenders took time to develop relationships
with victims. Sixty-four percent communicated on-
line with victims for more than 1 month. Most cases
Statistical Analysis
evolved into multiple forms of contact, including
Four weights were constructed to reflect the complex
more than one kind of online interaction. Seventy-
sample design. First, each case was given a sampling
nine percent included telephone conversations; 48%
weight to account for the probability of selection in
of offenders sent pictures online to victims; and 47%
both the mail survey and telephone interview sam-
sent or offered gifts or money. Gifts ranged from
ples. The sampling weights were adjusted for agency
small tokens like jewelry and teddy bears to items
nonresponse, case level nonresponse, duplication of
like clothing, cell phones, and digital cameras. Inves-
cases among agencies, and for arrests by one federal
tigators described victims in half of the cases as being
agency that did not participate in case level inter-
in love with or having feelings of close friendship
views. Second, primary sampling unit weights were
toward offenders.
created to account for clustering within each of the
three sampling frames. Third, stratification weights
The Role of Deception
were computed based on the different sampling
strategies for each frame. Finally, finite population
Although most of the offenders were much older
correction factors accounted for the sampling being
than their victims, deception about these large age
conducted without replacing ineligible cases. We
differences was a rare feature of these crimes. Only
conducted weighted descriptive analyses using In-
5% of offenders represented themselves online as
tercooled STATA 7.0 statistical software (StataCorp,
peers of victims by claiming they were age 17 or
College Station, TX).
younger. In some of these cases, the offenders started
off saying they were teens, but later introduced that
they were older. Another 25% of offenders shaved a
Results
few years off their true ages, but still presented
themselves as much older than their young targets.
Demographic Characteristics of Victims and
For example, men who were 45 told victims they
Offenders
were 35.
Victims in Internet-initiated cases were predomi-
Deception about sexual motives was also uncom-
nantly young teens (see Table 2). Seventy-six percent
mon. Although 21% of offenders hid or misrepre-
were between 13 and 15 years old; 1% was age 12;
sented their motives, most of these deceivers were
none were younger than 12; 75% of victims were
open about wanting sex from their victims. Accord-
girls.
ing to respondent investigators, most misrepresenta-
Ninety-nine percent of offenders were male. Al-
tions involved insincere promises of love and ro-
most all of the cases with male victims involved male
mance. However, some cases involved more
offenders. The offenders were much older than their
fundamental deceptions. A few offenders posed as
victims; 76% were age 26 or older; 47% were more
“friends” and then assaulted their victims, and a
than 20 years older than their victims.
small number devised more elaborate ploys, for
example luring girls by claiming to run modeling or
casting agencies. Nonetheless, most offenders openly
Where and How Online Relationships Arose
sexually solicited victims. Eighty percent brought up
Most first encounters between offenders and victims
sexual topics during online communications with
(76%) happened in online chat rooms. The chat
victims. Twenty percent engaged in cybersex with

424.e16
WOLAK ET AL
JOURNAL OF ADOLESCENT HEALTH Vol. 35, No. 5
Table 2. Characteristics of Victims and Dynamics of
Table 2. continued
Internet-initiated Sex Crimes
Internet
Internet
Initiated
Initiated
(n
129)
(n
129)
Characteristics
% (n)a
Characteristics
% (n)a
Missing values
9% (4)
Victim age
Offender and victim communicated online
77% (100)
12
1% (3)
multiple waysb
13
26% (30)
Offender
14
22% (39)
Talked to victim by telephone
79% (99)
15
28% (35)
Sent mail to victimb
19% (23)
16
14% (15)
Sent pictures to victim
48% (65)
17
8% (7)
Gave or offered victim money or gifts
47% (52)
Victim gender
Victim was in love or felt close to offenderb
50% (60)
Female
75% (94)
Offender was deceptive by
Male
25% (35)
Claiming to be younger than 18b
5% (9)
Offender gender
Shaving years off age, but not claiming to be
25% (31)
Female
1% (2)
a minorb
Male
99% (127)
Lying about physical appearance or other
26% (30)
Offender age
aspects of identityb
Less than 18
1% (2)
Lying about sexual motivesb
21% (26)
18 to 25
23% (31)
Offender was deceptive to any extentb
52% (67)
26 to 39
41% (52)
Victim lied about being 18 or older
9% (9)
40 or more
35% (44)
Offender used the Internet to
Victim race
Bring up sexual topics with victimb
80% (103)
Non-Hispanic White
81% (101)
Engage in cybersex with victimb
20% (25)
African-American
7% (10)
Send sexual pictures to victimb
18% (29)
Asian
5% (6)
Transmit adult pornography to victimb
10% (16)
Hispanic White
3% (6)
Transmit child pornography to victimb
9% (12)
Other
1% (2)
Offender and victim met face-to-facec
74% (99)
Victim lived with
Sexual offense was committed at face-to-face
93% (94)
Both biological parents
61% (69)
meeting
Single parent
27% (39)
Distance victim traveled to initial meeting
Parent and stepparent
7% (11)
10 miles or less
52% (46)
Foster parent or other
3% (6)
More than 10 to 50 miles
17% (17)
Highest educational level in victim’s householdb
More than 50 miles
9% (8)
High school or less
23% (31)
Distance offender traveled to initial meeting
Some college education
15% (15)
10 miles or less
8% (11)
College graduate or more
21% (31)
More than 10 to 50 miles
32% (31)
Missing values
40% (52)
More than 50 miles
41% (38)
Income level of victim’s householdb
Offender or victim traveled more than 50 miles
50% (46)
Less than $20,000
4% (7)
to initial meeting
$20,000 to $50,000
42% (49)
Offender crossed state line or international
31% (26)
More than $50,000
30% (40)
boundary
Missing values
23% (33)
Victim crossed state line or international
9% (7)
Type of community where victim livedb
boundary
Urban
14% (26)
Initial face-to-face meeting happened at
Suburban or large town
49% (58)
Public place
46% (38)
Small town or rural
31% (36)
Hotel or motel
13% (13)
Missing values
6% (9)
Offender’s home
19% (18)
Dynamics of Internet-initiated relationships
Victim’s home
20% (26)
Offender met victim
Other
2% (4)
In a chatroom
76% (99)
Victim went somewhere with offender
83% (78)
Through Instant Messages
10% (15)
Victim spent the night with offender
41% (36)
Through e-mail
5% (3)
Offender and victim met more than onceb
73% (69)
Other
5% (5)
Most serious sexual offense committed
Initial meeting happened at a sexually
13% (19)
Noncontact
1% (1)
oriented online siteb
Fondling
3% (4)
Offender communicated online with victim forb
Oral sex
18% (14)
1 month or less
27% (39)
Intercourse or other penetration
71% (73)
More than 1 to 6 months
48% (57)
Offender used violence or threat of violence
5% (8)
More than 6 months
16% (21)
Offender used coercion
16% (18)

November 2004
INTERNET-INITIATED SEX CRIMES
424.e17
Table 2. continued
Although media reports often describe offenders
who travel long distances to meet victims, we found
Internet
Initiated
that half of offenders and victims who met face-to-
(n
129)
face lived within 50 miles of each other. Forty percent
Characteristics
% (n)a
of cases involved victims or offenders who crossed
Victim was
state or international boundaries to attend first meet-
Abducted (moved more than 50 feet against will)
3% (5)
ings. Contrary to standard prevention advice given
Illegally detained
8% (11)
to youth, less than half (46%) of first face-to-face
Injured by any means
2% (3)
meetings occurred in public places; 39% took place in
Victim was reported missing to a law enforcement
29% (25)
agency
offenders’ or victims’ homes and 13% in hotels or
Victim ran away to be with offender
24% (20)
motels. The great majority of victims who met of-
Other aggravating circumstances
fenders face-to-face (83%) willingly went somewhere
Offered or given illegal drugs or alcohol
40% (32)
with them, often riding in offenders’ cars to the
Exposed to adult pornography
23% (21)
offender’s home or to a hotel, mall, movie, or restau-
Exposed to child pornography
15% (14)
Photographed in a suggestive or sexual pose
21% (23)
rant. Forty-one percent of victims spent at least one
night with the offender.
Note: Some percentages may not add to 100% because of
rounding or missing values.
Further, most victims who met offenders (73%)
a Ns and percentages may not be proportionate because results
met them more than once; 13% met offenders twice;
are weighted to reflect selection probabilities. We report un-
39% met them three or more times and 20% lived
weighted counts to avoid overstating sample size.
b Missing values account for more than 5% of cases. Most
with offenders for some period. Most recurring
missing values were because investigators did not have complete
meetings happened within 6 months, but 4% hap-
information in every case.
c
pened over 1 to 3 years.
N
99 for the percentages that follow.
The Kinds of Sex Crimes that Occurred
victims, and 18% transmitted sexual pictures to vic-
In 89% of cases with face-to-face meetings, offenders
tims online.
had sexual intercourse, oral sex, or other form of
There were also other forms of deception and
penetrative sex with victims. Only 5% of cases in-
misrepresentation. Twenty-six percent of offenders
volved violent offenses, mostly rape or attempted
lied at some point about their physical appearance or
rape. Rapes did not always happen at first meetings.
some other aspect of their identity like their name,
One male victim was raped after several meetings,
family status or employment. Altogether, 52% lied
when he tried to break off a sexual relationship with
about something at some point in the relationship,
the offender. Sixteen percent of cases involved coer-
but deceptions about being considerably older adults
cion. The victims in these cases were pressured into
interested in sexual relationships with teenagers did
having sex or doing sexual things, like engaging in
not occur in most of these crimes.
bondage, that they did not want to do. Again,
coercion did not always happen at first meetings.
A few cases (3%) involved brief abductions that
How Face-to-Face Meetings Developed
happened in the course of sexual assaults, but none
Most cases progressed to face-to-face sexual encoun-
involved stereotypical kidnappings in the sense of
ters. Seventy-four percent involved face-to-face
youth being taken against their will for a long
meetings and 93% of the face-to-face meetings en-
distance or held for a considerable period of time.
tailed illegal sexual contact between offenders and
However, 29% of victims who attended face-to-face
victims. The cases that did not involve face-to-face
meetings with offenders were reported missing to
meetings fell into three categories. In some cases,
police. Investigators described 24% of victims in-
victims reported the inappropriate overtures of of-
volved in face-to-face meetings as runaways. The
fenders to the police, parents or other adults. In some
other 5% who were reported missing had lied about
cases, observant family members intervened before
their whereabouts to their parents, often claiming to
meetings occurred. Some crimes were committed
be spending a night or a weekend with a friend.
solely online, for example one offender talked a
Some victims who attended face-to-face meetings
victim into sending him a pair of her panties. An-
were given illegal drugs or alcohol (40%), exposed to
other persuaded a victim to create and send him a
adult or child pornography (23% and 15%, respec-
sexually explicit video.
tively), or photographed in sexual poses (21%). The

424.e18
WOLAK ET AL
JOURNAL OF ADOLESCENT HEALTH Vol. 35, No. 5
photography ranged from nude Polaroid pictures to
because in most cases they had communicated exten-
hidden cameras secretly recording an offender’s sex
sively with victims, both online and off before they
acts with a victim. In some cases, offenders con-
actually met in person. Offenders used these interac-
vinced victims to take sexually explicit pictures of
tions to establish romantic or otherwise close rela-
themselves or friends for the benefit of the offender.
tionships before they first met victims face-to-face.
In summary, most Internet-initiated sex crimes
involved teenagers too young to consent to sexual
intercourse that were described by respondents as in
Implications for Prevention
love with or close to the offenders they had met
These dynamics have important implications for
online. These were nonforcible crimes, committed by
prevention. Current prevention materials about In-
men who were much older than their victims. The
ternet safety emphasize the dangers of deception.
victims knew they were interacting with adults who
They stress that adolescents should not trust people
were interested in them sexually. The length and
they meet online and urge them to avoid meeting
variety of communications and multiple face-to-face
strangers and giving out personal information on-
meetings in most cases indicate that many victims
line. Although these may be useful messages to
viewed their interactions with much older adult
prevent some forms of victimization, they do not
offenders as desired relationships.
address the dynamics of the Internet sexual exploi-
tation found in a majority of actual cases.
Discussion
The data suggest that a major challenge for pre-
vention is the population of young teens who are
Confronting an Inaccurate Stereotype
willing to enter into voluntary sexual relationships
The prevalent image of Internet sex crimes against
with adults whom they meet online. This is a reality
minors is of strangers who are pedophiles and who
that health and prevention educators, law enforce-
deceive and lure unsuspecting children, frequently
ment officials and parents may be reluctant to con-
over long distances, into situations where they can be
front. But effective prevention requires public and
forcibly abducted or sexually assaulted. However,
private acknowledgment of what actually happens
this nationally representative sample of Internet-
in these cases.
initiated cases known to law enforcement suggests a
different predominant scenario with different impli-
cations for prevention.
Education and Awareness
First, the offenders in these crimes do not appear
Appropriate prevention messages can be targeted to
to be pedophiles. Pedophilia is a sexual deviation
the general audience of adolescents [13]. One avenue
involving sexual attraction to prepubescent children
is to educate teenagers directly about why such
[12]. The victims in these cases were young adoles-
relationships are a bad idea. Young teens may not be
cents. Ninety-nine percent were age 13 to 17, and
fully aware that the adults in these relationships are
none were younger than 12.
committing crimes and can go to jail. They have
Second, although they undoubtedly manipulated
probably not considered the publicity, embarrass-
juveniles in a variety of ways, the offenders in these
ment, and life disruption likely to accompany a
Internet-initiated crimes did not generally deceive
public revelation of such a relationship. They may
victims about being older adults who were interested
benefit from understanding the manipulations that
in sexual relationships. Victims usually knew this
adult offenders engage in, and from understanding
before their first face-to-face encounters with offend-
that adults who care about their well-being would
ers.
not propose sexual relationships or involve them in
Third, with a few frightening and dangerous
risky encounters. They should be informed of why
exceptions, the majority of offenders did not use
such romances end quickly, even when not discov-
force or coercion to sexually abuse their victims and
ered, and how frequently the offenders have other
did not abduct them. Victims, who were predomi-
partners. They should know that corresponding with
nantly young teenagers, typically agreed to meet
adults trolling for teenage partners can encourage
these adults, knowing of their sexual interest. They
offenders and endanger other youth, even when
engaged in sexual intercourse, or other sexual activ-
relationships are confined to the Internet. They need
ity, with the adults, often on multiple occasions.
to be told bluntly that any sexual pictures they pose
Fourth, it is misleading to characterize the offend-
for may end up on the Internet or as evidence in a
ers in these cases as “strangers” to their victims,
courtroom.

November 2004
INTERNET-INITIATED SEX CRIMES
424.e19
This aspect of adolescent sexual behavior has
adults online who initiate sexual relationships in the
implications for parents and professionals, too. In
guise of helping teens sort out these issues. Better
addition to monitoring for unhealthy online relation-
efforts to direct young people to trustworthy sources of
ships with adults, parents and professionals working
help from physicians, school personnel, mental health
with children need to discuss the reality and inad-
agencies, and support organizations may forestall
visability of these relationships. Because one quarter
some of these offenses.
of the victims were 13-year-olds, these discussions
need to start in earliest adolescence.
“Compliant” or “statutory” victims. Moreover, those
who provide services to adolescent victims need to
understand that their clients may view these relation-
Vulnerable Populations
ships quite differently than law enforcement, mental
Poor relationships with parents. Some adolescents
health practitioners, and other adults. Some practitio-
may be particularly susceptible to Internet overtures
ners and law enforcement investigators have begun to
from adults looking for young sexual partners. Ad-
pay more specific attention to adolescent victims of
olescent girls who report a high degree of conflict
Internet-initiated and other nonforcible or statutory sex
with their parents, boys who report low parental
crimes [14,15]. These victims, sometimes referred to as
monitoring, and adolescents of both sexes who are
“compliant” or “statutory victims,” may actively coop-
troubled with depression and related problems are
erate with offenders and develop strong sexual and
more likely than other youth to form close online
emotional attachments to them. These youth may not
relationships with people they meet online [7]. These
see themselves as victims and may resist cooperating
youth may constitute a susceptible population. Con-
with investigators. Traditional medical and mental
sequently, prevention efforts must account for the
health protocols for handling child sexual abuse vic-
fact that some of the most vulnerable adolescents
tims may not prepare practitioners to deal with adoles-
may be estranged from their parents or have parents
cents who are victims of nonforcible sex crimes. Train-
who are not monitoring their behavior. In these
ing and protocols should be reviewed to assure that
cases, prevention education could be aimed at those
adolescent victims are treated appropriately and
that may assume roles of confidant. For example,
compassionately.
teens involved in these relationships may confide in
friends. Prevention educators should urge young
people to protect their friends by revealing these
relationships, when necessary.
Limitations
First, because most sex crimes against minors are
Loneliness and depression. Also, practitioners en-
never reported to the police [16 –18] and many of
gaged in efforts to identify and treat depressed
those known to law enforcement do not culminate in
adolescents need to be aware that some depressed
arrest [19], this sample cannot be said to represent
youth may be turning to the Internet to ameliorate
their loneliness. Questions about Internet use and
the characteristics of all Internet-initiated victimiza-
online relationships should be part of protocols for
tions that occurred during the period of the study,
working with depressed young people. Young teens
but only those that ended in the arrest of an offender.
who are lonely or depressed or who have difficult
Second, some errors and biases may have been
relationships with their parents may be more vulner-
introduced because we interviewed law enforcement
able to harmful effects of Internet-initiated sexual
investigators. We regarded these respondents as the
relationships with adults, as well as to the relation-
best sources for in-depth information about the na-
ships themselves.
ture of Internet-initiated crimes because their profes-
sional responsibilities require them to gather inten-
Gay or questioning boys. The findings from this
sive information about these cases. However, the
study that a quarter of the relationships involved
information they provided could be biased by train-
teenage boys with adult men highlights another group
ing, professional attitudes, or the adversarial nature
worthy of special prevention initiatives: teenagers rec-
of their roles in some of these cases.
ognizing themselves as homosexual or questioning
Finally, our findings were somewhat limited by
their sexual orientation. Such youth, using the Internet
the small sample size, and a larger sample would
to seek out contacts and information about homosexu-
have allowed for a more nuanced analysis of find-
ality and sexual orientation, may be vulnerable to
ings.

424.e20
WOLAK ET AL
JOURNAL OF ADOLESCENT HEALTH Vol. 35, No. 5
Future Research
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Adolesc Health 2002;31:7–10.
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3. Finkelhor D. Sexually Victimized Children. New York: Free
minors is in its infancy, and prevention of this crime
Press, 1979.
problem will be assisted by future work focusing on
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several related areas. First, these offenses happen
Molester in Modern America. New Haven, CT: Yale Univer-
sity Press, 1998.
within the context of online relationships, which
5. Wolak J, Mitchell KJ, Finkelhor D. Close online relationships
appear to occur widely and with great variety among
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both adolescents and adults. Further study about the
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nature and characteristics of online relationships in
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general will help to distinguish between the qualities
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Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2000.
of healthy and unhealthy relationships so that pre-
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vention can be aimed at the latter while not discour-
Characteristics of youth who form close online relationships. J
aging the former. Second, we need to identify vul-
Adolesc 2003;26:105–19.
nerable youth populations, including how Internet
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use may be associated with mental health problems
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Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency,
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or may interact with other sexual risk behaviors. We
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also need to evaluate the impact of victimization by
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Document Outline
  • Internet-initiated Sex Crimes against Minors: Implications for Prevention Based on Findings from a National Study
    • Methods
      • Phase 1 Mail Survey Sample
      • Phase 2 Telephone Interview Sample
      • Subsample Used in this Study
      • Instrumentation
      • Variables
      • Statistical Analysis
    • Results
      • Demographic Characteristics of Victims and Offenders
      • Where and How Online Relationships Arose
      • The Role of Deception
      • How Face-to-Face Meetings Developed
      • The Kinds of Sex Crimes that Occurred
    • Discussion
      • Confronting an Inaccurate Stereotype
      • Implications for Prevention
      • Education and Awareness
      • Vulnerable Populations
        • Poor relationships with parents
        • Loneliness and depression
        • Gay or questioning boys
        • ?Compliant? or ?statutory? victims
    • Limitations
    • Future Research
    • References