Pedophiles in Cyberspace
Before the emergence of the Internet, pedophiles were largely isolated. Now, with several pedophile support groups online, child molesters can exchange child pornography, discuss their molestation experiences, validate each other’s abusive acts, and secure reinforcement for the shared belief that sexual interaction between adults and children is acceptable (Lambert & O’Halloran, 2008; Malesky & Ennis, 2004). The Internet has also facilitated victimization of children by pedophiles, who, "hiding behind a veil of anonymity, roam cyberspace relatively undetected, posing all sorts of pretenses in their efforts to lure unsuspecting victims" (Philaretou, 2005, p. 181). These cyberspace predators can explore the bulletin boards on the Internet and cruise chat rooms designed for children and teenagers. These chat rooms provide rich hunting grounds for adults seeking unsuspecting kids in need of attention and kids with confused notions of sexuality.
While most of the pedophiles who are active in cyberspace are males, there is mounting evidence that almost one third of online pedophiles are female (Lambert & O’Halloran, 2008). Like male cyberspace predators, women "are using the Internet to express a sexual interest in children and they display similar characteristics to male individuals engaged in the same processes" (Lambert & O’Halloran, 2008, p. 284).
Typically, pedophiles first gain a child’s trust by appearing to be genuinely empathic and interested in the child’s problems and concerns. Then they may try to get their intended victim to agree to e-mail, postal mail, or phone contacts. Next they may send the child pornographic materials suggesting that adult-child sexual interaction is normal and appropriate. The final step is to arrange a meeting. One case in which this strategy was used involved a 32-year-old Seattle engineer, who used the Internet to lure a 13-year-old girl, whom he then repeatedly raped. He was sentenced in 2000 to a 23-year prison term. In New York State a 15-year-old boy’s statement led police to a number of prominent local men who had been systematically abusing local boys, some as young as 13 (West, 2000). Many Internet sex crimes do not involve forcible sexual assault and more closely resemble statutory rape in which adult offenders use the Internet and face-to-face encounters to "meet, develop relationships with, and openly seduce underage teenagers" (Wolak et al., 2008, p. 111).
In September 1996 the U. S. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which prohibited the distribution of indecent materials to minors by computer. In July 1997 the Supreme Court overruled this legislation on constitutional grounds, concluding that the CDA would seriously erode the right of free speech (Levy, 1997). In 2002 the Supreme Court, in further defense of this right, struck down a section of the
federal child pornography law that made it a crime to own or sell computer-created images of children engaged in sex ("virtual" child pornography). According to Justice Anthony Kennedy, making it a crime to show sexual images that only appear to be children would damage legitimate filmmakers, photographers, and advertisers (Savage, 2002). As a result of this decision, it is legal to display on the Internet both computer-generated images of children in sexual situations and depictions of minors by adult actors in sexual situations, provided that no real children are shown or "composited" into a sex scene.
Software filters may be more effective than legal prohibitions in limiting youthful access to Internet pornography. However, it is noteworthy that many U. S. households with children do not use such filters (Times Digest, 2009).
Some of the gateways to the Internet, such as America Online (AOL), have attempted to protect children from cyberspace predators by using "guards" to monitor kids-only chat rooms for inappropriate or suspicious dialogue. Unfortunately, these efforts are only minimally effective, because private messages cannot be screened. Knowledgeable cyberspace pedophiles are most likely to make conversations private before making inappropriate overtures. A decision by MySpace. com to apply technologies designed to block access of convicted sex offenders to this popular online hangout is an encouraging development in efforts to protect youth from cyberspace predators (Barnard, 2008). A number of states have recently established laws that prohibit sex offenders from visiting social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace (Wynton, 2011).
It is becoming increasingly common for law enforcement officers to troll chat rooms looking for pedophiles who prey on youthful victims and for text messages, photos, and website posts that can serve as evidence (Younger, 2011). Classroom instruction on how to find and prosecute cyberspace predators has become more widespread as law enforcement officials seek to expand their arsenal of methods to combat sex offenders who lurk in cyberspace (Roman, 2011).
Even if widely applied and effective laws or in-house procedures existed to curb cyberspace pedophilia, the responsibility for protecting children resides with parents. Just as most of us would not allow our children to play unsupervised in dangerous places, we should not allow them to cruise cyberspace or spend time in chat rooms without supervision. One potentially helpful strategy is to keep computers in a central location where children can be monitored more easily when they go online. However, parental monitoring of their children’s cyberspace activities has become increasingly difficult in recent years with the availability of all kinds of mobile devices for surfing the Internet (Feldman, 2011). Parents should be clear that a child should never meet a cyberspace acquaintance in person without a parent or another responsible adult present. Finally, parents concerned about cyberspace pornography may wish to purchase Internet filtering software, such as NetNanny or Cybersitter, designed to block childrens access to websites with obscene pictures or words. One recently developed social network protection system, SocialShield, provides parents with tools to help them protect their childrens Internet safety. •