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Online predators' methods different than thought

Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook do not appear to increase the risk of becoming the victim of an online predator, a study released Monday suggests.

According to the research, Internet offenders often work to foster trusting online relationships with teens before luring them into what the teens might see as a romantic or sexual adventure. However, the study found predators rarely pose as other children to stalk or abduct their victims.

'The things that we hear and fear and the things that actually occur may not be the same,' said Janis Wolak, lead author of the study, conducted by the Crimes against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire.

The risk of online sexual predators has been a hot topic from the show 'Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator' to a recent agreement by MySpace with state governments to take steps to protect youngsters from the perpetrators of such crime.

But a surprising finding was that social networking activity did not appear to increase risk. Rather, the researchers found that risk tends to climb when teens chat to strangers online about sex by instant message, e-mail or chat rooms.

Most often, the victims know they are communicating with adults, according to the study. Internet predators posed as teens in only 5 percent of the crimes analyzed.

'Many people in these cases feel that they're in love,' Wolak said. 'When these romances go wrong, as they inevitably do, we want young people to understand the adults in these cases are sex offenders who are exploiting very young, inexperienced teenagers.'

Researchers administered telephone interviews of 3,000 Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17, and 612 interviews with law enforcement officials. The data was collected between 2000 and 2005.

The findings, published in the February/March issue of American Psychologist, suggest that efforts to warn children about deception and stop children from posting personal information online may fall short in preventing abuse.

Instead, Wolak and her colleagues suggest helping teens understand the dangers of inappropriate relationships with adults. Wolak said the best way for parents and educators to confront the danger is to talk openly about sexual matters.

'As adults, we need to get over our discomfort with that,' she said.

Another recent study showed that 53 percent of adults thought online predators were a threat to their children.

The research, conducted by the University of Southern California Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future, also showed that 63 percent of parents were uncomfortable with their children participating in online communities.

The director of the center, Jeffrey Cole, said the fear of online sexual predators contributed to the majority of parental discomfort with social networking sites (followed by concerns over time wasting and identity theft).

He said that from what he has seen, 'it's much faster than really getting people to fall in love over a sustained period.'

But speed is relative when it comes to teenagers falling in love. So a fast-moving Internet relationship with a stranger doesn't necessarily indicate that the victim didn't have perceived feelings for the predator before the crime was committed.

And there is a well-known grooming process that the FBI warns about, according to i-SAFE Inc., a national, nonprofit distributor of Internet safety education.

'This person becomes their best friend,' says Jeff Godlis, i-SAFE director of communications. 'It's a specific point-by-point process where a predator tries to make friends, make trust, make it a secretive affair and then basically turn the victim against their family.'