Children on-line may be exposed to more than parents, authorities know

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   As more and more children across the nation begin to have regular access to the Internet, more of them are becoming victims of unwanted sexual solicitations and exposure to sexually related materials.
   Many people often associate such incidents as occurring only in large cities and not in their own back yards. Sandra Farrow, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigates crimes related to children, including crimes that occur over the Internet.
   In recent months, Farrow arrested a man who worked with an area United States Postal Service office that had been talking to a juvenile female over the Internet and had traveled to another state to start an off-line relationship with her.
   Many times, Farrow said, the perpetrator of such crimes is not what most people would envision as a pedophile. "I've arrested clergy, firemen, police officers, school board members, coaches and boy scout leaders," Farrow said. "They are prominent educated people. It's not what you would typically consider a pervert."
   According to Farrow, the FBI initially got involved in investigating crimes against children on-line, such as sexual predators, in 1993. Since then, agents have seen the number of cases sharply increase as use of the Internet has become widespread.
   "In 1997 the Bureau opened 113 cases involving predators on the Internet," Farrow said. "In 2002, they opened 2,370 cases."
   According to Farrow, 45 percent of children in the United States are on the Internet. Approximately 30 million children under the age of 18 are on-line regularly, she said.
   One way that agents from the FBI catch sexual predators is through a program that was started in 1995 called "Innocent Images". "We have agents who basically surf posing as a 13-year-old girl, a 14-year-old boy and they make contact with these predators," Farrow said.
   Farrow describes the on-line predator cases as "traveler cases," stating that often times, the sexual predator will contact a child and try to entice them to travel to where they are, often providing tickets or money, or they will travel to where the child lives to initiate off-line contact.
   According to Farrow, on-line predators have a pattern in choosing their victims. "These guys are so focused on what they do," she said. "They target children from broken homes or who have emotional problems or physical problems. They know how to pick their victims."
   There is also a pattern among the perpetrators themselves, Farrow said.
   "Ninety-nine percent of the time it is a white male exclusive crime," she said. "Very rarely is it a black male and even more rarely is it a female."
   The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has done research on the subject of victimization of children over the Internet.
   According to a report completed in 2000 by the NCMEC, one in five children that regularly use the Internet has received a sexual solicitation, and one in 33 has received an aggressive sexual solicitation. The study defined a sexual solicitation as a request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or to share personal sexual information.
   Aggressive sexual solicitation was defined as a sexual solicitation involving off-line contact through regular mail, telephone conversations or in person meetings or where an attempt or request was made for off-line contact.
   The study also reported that one in four children had received unwanted exposure to nude pictures of people or pictures of people engaged in sexual activity.
   According to the report, about one quarter of the youth who encountered a sexual solicitation told a parent and almost 40 percent of those who reported unwanted exposure to sexual material told a parent.
   However, the report states, less than 10 percent of sexual solicitations and only three percent of unwanted exposure to sexual material was reported to authorities such as a law enforcement agency, Internet service provider or hotline.
   In 10 percent of the incidents reported during the study, the children interviewed reported that the perpetrator had asked the youth to meet them somewhere. In almost half of those incidents, the child did not tell anyone about the episode. Even when the episode was aggressive, 36 percent of the children did not tell anyone about it.
   "The survey suggests that youth encounter a substantial quantity of offensive episodes, some of which are distressing and most of which are unreported," the study states. "Most incidents are brief and easily deflected, but some turn out to be distressing to the recipients and some become more aggressive including off-line contact or attempts at off-line contact.
   "Perhaps the most discouraging finding about sexual solicitations is that parents and reporting authorities do not seem to be hearing about the majority of the episodes. The youth may be embarrassed. They may not know what to do. They may simply have accepted this unpleasant reality of the Internet."
   Farrow said that one of the best ways for parents to protect their children while they are on-line is to talk to their children about the possible dangers of talking to people whom they do not know while they are on-line.
   "The best thing for parents is to keep open communication lines," she said.
   Another important thing, she said, is for parents to establish rules for their children to follow while they are on-line and post them near the computer as a reminder for the child. She suggested setting a time frame for when the children can be on-line and what sites they can visit.
   Farrow also said that parents should use extra caution when deciding whether or not to allow children to setup on-line profiles or visit chat rooms. According to the NCMEC study, in 65 percent of the incidents where children received sexual solicitations, the children met the perpetrator in a chat room.
   Perhaps the most important thing, Farrow said, is for parents to not place a computer in the child's room, but rather in an open room where the child can be easily monitored to see what sites they are visiting and whom they are talking to.
   "I always equate putting a computer in the child's bedroom to leaving that child alone in Times Square because that is what they are exposed to, hundreds of thousands of people."