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Discussion: Online Child Predators

posted on May 14, 2007 at 3:57 PM

As adults, we know we should safeguard our identities online, but our children are also at risk, not just for identity theft but also as prizes for child predators. The national center for missing and exploited children reports that one in seven youths on the Internet has received a sexual solicitation or approach. Seventy percent of those children were girls. Ninety-seven percent of offenders met their young victims online.

With us here tonight to discuss what we can do to keep our children safe is Susan K. Tesdahl. She is the director of St. Luke's Child Protection Center in Cedar Rapids in Cedar Rapids. And also with us tonight is Sean Berry, Assistant United States Attorney, Northern District, also from Cedar Rapids.

Mundt: Sue, given what you know about this story, how typical is it?

Tesdahl: It's fairly typical, given the age of Carli and the way that she got involved with just talking on the Internet. Kids are very open when they're talking to somebody that can't see them and that type of thing. They'll share all kinds of things.

Mundt: And, Sean, is this what you see, based on what we know about this particular predator? Is this what you would find in cases like this?

Berry: Yeah, this is a typical case, but I think parents also have to realize that it could be even worse than this. The child doesn't always come back. And so while this is a typical case, it -- it's not the worst-case scenario.

Mundt: There's a lot of threats to our children. So in the constellation of threats to children, where do you put the online predation?

Berry: Well, I would put it number one, I really would, for kids who are on the Internet and unsupervised. There are a remarkable number of predators out there trying to find those kind of kids, and they are finding them.

Mundt: Sue, do you concur with that, that this is the number one?

Tesdahl: Yes.

Mundt: Talk a little bit more about the -- that vulnerable time of life that we find ourselves in when we're in our teen years.

Tesdahl: Well, so many of these kids are in their young teen years, which is -- teen is the acronym for between childhood and adulthood, so they are searching. They're weighing all of their options. They're gradually separating from their parents, entering into a life of their own, moving toward adulthood, and all kinds of things out there look exciting to them. These kids in this generation today are very computer savvy. They've been exposed to the Internet and to computers since they were in grade school, and there's a whole world out there for them to explore, take risks on, that type of thing. It can be very seductive for them, just the whole world of computer, let alone when they get in contact with someone who is very flattering towards them, listens to what they have to say. Some kids don't experience much of that, that people are very interested in them at 13, 14.

Mundt: And, Sean, in the same way that children have become more savvy about the Internet, online predators apparently have too. I mean you can see a growth in the use of the Internet as a tool in this kind of activity.

Berry: Absolutely, Todd. It used to be a predator would go to the mall or the local pool to try and find a child alone and now we've given predators portals into our children's bedrooms and they know how to use them. They know how to take a small amount of personal information that a child may post and learn very much about that child, about that child's parents' work schedules, about the school they attend. It's truly remarkable how a little Internet knowledge can become such a dangerous tool in the hands of a child predator.

Mundt: Is there a typical online predator, a typical profile?

Berry: I wish there were. I wish there were but there aren't. It can be anything from a police officer to an attorney to -- anybody. I mean it really can be anybody. That's the scariest part about it. They don't wear T-shirts that say "child predator," and that's what makes it so difficult to try and prosecute these sort of cases is because we have to find these people after -- usually after they've already done some damage.

Mundt: Is there always a connection to child pornography, or is that not always the case?

Berry: Not always but it is typical. That's what these people are interested in. They're interested in children as sexual objects. And so on their computers, often we will find a shocking array of child pornography when we catch up to a child predator.

Mundt: This is a question for both of you, and I'll start with you, Sue. Can you give me a sense of the scope of this problem in Iowa?

Tesdahl: Well, Iowa isn't really any different than any other state, because our kids are as computer knowledgeable. And once they get on the Internet, there's no boundaries, you know. With Carli's story, this individual is from Illinois. She lived in Iowa. So they can meet up with any kind of person no matter where they live.

Mundt: It opens up a world of opportunities and dangers.

Tesdahl: It absolutely does.

Mundt: Sean?

Berry: Sue is exactly right. We are not going to be able to prosecute our way out of this program, and that's why it's important to have programs like this, to explain to parents that prosecution isn't going to do it. Prevention is what we need to do, and that's what parents' primary goal should be with respect to their children's Internet use.

Mundt: So you're telling me that most of these online predators are not caught?

Berry: I would think it would be very difficult to, because there are so many and because the Internet provides the anonymity that they need to commit their crimes. So as I say, we are not going to prosecute our way out of this.

Mundt: Is it typically the young and naive who are the result -- or the victims of this kind of predation? Is there -- are twenty something's also victims of this kind of predation?

Tesdahl: It's not unusual for someone who is twenty or thirty to be lured into a relationship with someone on the Internet, but these young teenagers are ideal victims because they're so emotionally labile and any kind of expression of understanding and "I can hear how tough your life is" and "let me help you" and this type of thing. "You're pretty," "I think you sound really smart." Kids, especially 13, 14, they need to hear that because they've got this self-esteem that's got to be built up.

Mundt: And this younger generation, having grown up with the Internet, seems to be much more open to the Internet. There are ways that they define private on the Internet that seem to be different than the ways that we, for instance, would define private.

Tesdahl: Absolutely, absolutely, because they're so used to it. They've used it for forever. There are programs out there for Toddlers that they can go on with their parents and play Disney games and things like that that are very well protected sites, but still you see three and four year olds using the computer quite adeptly.

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