Predators patiently groom potential victims by earning their trust over a period of time. Any mechanism that gives a predator unfettered time with their victim can be exploited as a point of access. That can be a chat room, instant messaging, email, cell phone texting—anything that allows them extensive periods of time to interact with their victim so they can build a relationship. Therefore, the most significant protection that a parent can offer to a child is limited daily access to the communication infrastructure and a healthy relationship in the home.
Predators seek out children who are emotionally disconnected from their parents; children who are lonely, depressed, and discouraged. In short, they seek out children in need of a friend. Since teens can be incredibly naïve and gullible, a predator can often easily manipulate a friendless youth.
Predators are cunning and duplicitous. Before they sink their hooks into children they groom them first by gaining their trust, praising them, and treating them like adults. This appeal is particularly successful with children who have low self-esteem. Suddenly they feel empowered and cool. Predators are savvy in kid-speak and able to feign interest in the TV and music that kids like.12
Some predators lie about their age and intentions throughout the relationship. Certainly those predators intent on abducting a child tend to hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. However, non-consensual meetings are very rare. “We have yet to find cases of sex offenders stalking and abducting minors on the basis of information posted on social networking sites. Online molesters do not appear to be stalking unsuspecting victims but rather continuing to seek youths who are susceptible to seduction.”13 That susceptibility typically manifests itself as responsiveness by the youth to the advances made by the predator.
Some predators begin by lying about their age, but then gradually admit their true age to their victim. Others are up front about their age from the beginning. (One study suggested that only five percent of offenders pretended to be teens when they met potential victims online.)14 The amazing thing is that many youth don’t run to parents or other trusted adults when they realize that their best friend online is a 35-year-old man. Of course, the predator is banking on the fact that in the life of this youth, he is their most trusted adult friend by that point. Teens in such an emotional state will construct an imaginary world in their head that provides sufficient justification for staying in the online relationship. Given the relatively shallow and immature world in which most teens live, let alone those vulnerable to giving themselves emotionally to a complete stranger, the patience and unconditional love offered by this online “friend” can be incredibly powerful, even if entirely irrational.
As an online relationship between a predator and victim evolves, it is typical for the predator to open up the conversation to sexual topics. If the victim responds positively to such advances, the predator will become more explicit, often sharing pornography with the victim. The purpose for sharing such material is that the predator desires to break down the resistance of the victim toward a sexual relationship. In fact, in the vast majority of cases in which a predator meets a victim in person, the victim has willingly gone to meet with the predator, the victim knows that the predator is an adult man, and the victim knows that they are meeting to have sexual relations.
Sexual predators typically engage in “grooming,” a process marked by initial prosocial contact in which the predator gains the affection, interest, and trust of children/adolescents through kind words and deeds. Children/adolescents of any age find this appealing, as they have a strong desire for attention, validation, and acceptance. For instance, the sexual predator might bring gifts to the child, play with the child, or just listen to the child and show interest in the child’s world. In the case of online grooming, the process may advance from e-mail correspondence to the exchange of gifts or pictures. If the child/adolescent seems receptive, the predator might escalate the grooming process by initiating more overt contact. For example, the predator might present pornographic material in attempt to desensitize the child/adolescent to sexualized content and normalize sexual activities.15
While we tend to focus on the extreme consequences of predator behavior—meetings with victims, illicit sexual relations, and abductions—the truth is that even when circumstances don’t progress to that level of involvement between predator and victim, tremendous damage is still done. I am aware of a situation in which a young woman became emotionally involved with an online predator who began grooming her for a sexual relationship. This included providing her with increasingly coarse pornographic material. For reasons that are not entirely clear, this young women shared the material with most of the girls in her Laurel class, some of whom became interested and absorbed in the material. One of the young women in the class alerted her parents, and the parents and leaders of these girls mobilized to intervene in this escalating situation. The young woman who was first involved with the predator avoided physical contact, but not before tremendous emotional and spiritual damage had already occurred. The moral of this story is that even without an Amber Alert, predators can inflict an emotional and spiritual cost on their victims very quickly.
Sadly, encounters between predators and children are almost entirely avoidable. Predators rely on access coupled with sufficient time to groom a victim emotionally and break down their resistance to a sexual relationship. Predators also rely on the emotional vulnerability of their victims. A friendless child with poor parental relationships who spends all day on the computer and all night texting on their cell phone is in the sweet spot for potential victimization. The child who has a life full of positive things, who spends a modest amount of time online, does not have 24/7 access to a cell phone, and has positive relationships with parents and family members is at extremely low risk of being victimized by a sexual predator online.