We all know the horror stories of predators luring children online to meet in person. Most states have laws that criminalize luring, or travelling to meet minors for a sexual purpose. But what has gone largely unaddressed, and what occurs far more often, are sinister contacts and communications with children online.
This summer, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld a state law criminalizing obscene internet contact with minors. The balance between free speech and protection from sexual exploitation can be struck. Hopefully this ruling will cause other states to adopt similar statutes and finally begin effective protections for children online.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s threat assessment report to Congress in 2010, the dangers to children from child predators are now far greater than prior to the internet, and far more children are exploited and are at risk for exploitation.
Research shows most offenders in internet sex crimes are men aged 26 years or older, and 10 or more years older than their victims. These predators use the internet to target and seduce underage adolescents into sexual encounters using instant messaging, video chat, email and chat rooms.
Many child molesters use online communications, wrote Janis Wolak in “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims” in American Psychologist (2008), “to establish trust and confidence, introducing talk of sex, and then arranging to meet youths in person for sexual encounters.” Child molesters with exhibitionist tendencies are also drawn to the internet as a convenient medium to send nude pictures or expose themselves via webcam.
This is just the sort of activity the Georgia internet statute prohibits. In a nutshell, this law prohibits adults from engaging in sexually explicit conversations with a child online, with the intention of arousing either the child or the adult. Parents and those who work with youth should be aware that such predatory activity is very common online and most likely not addressed in the criminal laws of their state.
A defendant arrested under this statute in 2014 challenged it as unconstitutional, claiming it violated his First Amendment rights to free speech. His attorney argued in his brief to the Georgia Supreme Court that he had a First Amendment right to “talk dirty” to a child. But the court ultimately recognized the statute correctly criminalized child exploitation without overly suppressing speech.
This was a huge step forward in the effort to protect children online and bring the criminal law up to date with the internet age — a process that has been slow to move forward due to fears of censorship, despite the explosion of child exploitation occurring online.
So what do those who work with children need to know?
First, child predators will always introduce the topic of sex with children to desensitize the child and play off their natural curiosities. If you suspect an adult is improperly discussing sex or introducing a child to pornography online, inform parents and the authorities. Find out what your state laws are, and if you do not have a law similar to Georgia’s, urge your state representatives to get it on the books.
As a preventative measure, ensure filtering systems block pornography on any electronics you use with kids. Children are exposed to pornography at younger and younger ages, making them more vulnerable to exploitation. Educate the parents of young people you work with about the dangers of online predators and recommend they talk to their kids about it.
Adults working with young children can help explain clear boundaries about what is or isn't OK for an adult to do or discuss with them. Resources such as the book “Good Pictures Bad Pictures” or the nonprofit Educate Empower Kids can help. Opening the lines of communication on these issues helps children feel comfortable asking questions and asking for help if they encounter something harmful.
With older children, discuss the dangers of sexting, sharing photos and posting personal information online. Predators, and sadly even peers, use photos and sexual conversations to blackmail a child into sending and doing more. Young people can even unwittingly create child pornography by sharing photos of themselves, which can be intercepted and shared among adult predators online and even open the child to criminal prosecution. Helping young people understand the lasting and real consequences of online activity is a vital part of internet use.