“The use of online social networks such as Facebook continues to rapidly increase among all age groups, providing new opportunities for the exchange of sexual information and potential unsafe encounters between predators and the vulnerable young,” states Elizabeth B. Dowdell, PhD, RN, CRNP associate professor at Villanova University College of Nursing, Villanova, PA and the lead author on a new study of sexual predators and online social networking patterns.
According to the findings of this new study, which was conducted by a research team working under a U.S. Department of Justice grant, more than two-thirds (63.3 percent) of internet sexual offenders initiate the topic of sex with middle school students during their first online chat session. The study, which collected data about how participants used social networking sites from 2007 to 2009 is published in the July issue of the American Journal of Nursing (AJN). Participants included student from middle- and high-school as well as traditional 4-year colleges and adult males who had been convicted of a sexual offense online or offline.
Two other findings of the study actually seem to reinforce Facebook’s insistence that only “real” people be allowed to have profiles on the social networking giant (see Facebook Bans Role-Players). the first finding is that although sexual offender and students frequent similar social networking sites, offenders favor MySpace while students prefer Facebook. Avatar sites, such as Second Life, are used by both students and predators. The second finding addresses the dispute over role-play accounts on Facebook and other social networking sites even more directly: the majority of sexual offenders disguise their identity while online.
Students’ experience with sexting (sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically) differs significantly by sex as well as the type and location of their school. For instance:
- 56.7 percent of high-school girls reported they knew about sexting compared to only 46.9 percent of boys.
- 75 percent of students at private high schools knew about sexting while on 50 percent of students at public schools did.
- 34.9 percent of high school boys participating in the study admitted meeting someone they met online IRL (in real life), with 22.6 percent reporting consensual sexual contact of some kind. 6.8 percent of the boy reported being threatened or sexually assaulted as a result of the meeting.
- 36.9 percent of the high school girls participating in the study reported offline meetings with strangers. 13.4 percent report something sexual occurring at the meeting and 4.5 percent indicate they were threatened on sexually assaulted as a result of the meeting.
In case there was any doubt, the study also found that the majority of Internet sexual predators prefer communicating with teenage girls rather than boys.
“Students may not be aware that they are engaging with a sexual predator online, and may not report online sexual advances to parents or school authorities, so nurses – especially school nurses and pediatric and primary care nurse practitioners – need to take a leadership role in assessing and screening for victimization or vulnerabilities,” states Maureen Shaw Kennedy, MA, RN, editor-in-chief of AJN.
The same may be true of role-players on Twitter and other social networking sites. No, we are not nurses or the internet police but we do know our communities and know when something seems “off”. As the recent situation with alleged pedophiles on Twitter demonstrates, we are capable of policing ourselves and as long as we understand that we are witnesses, not vigilantes, we can play a role in helping keep our online universes safe.