Two-Thirds of Internet Sexual Offenders Initiate Sex Topics During First Social Network Chat Session

Released: 21-Jun-2011 11:00 AM EDT
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Study in American Journal of Nursing Highlights Online Patterns of Adolescents, Young Adults and Sexual Offenders

Newswise — New York, NY (June 21, 2011) - Students and young adults are highly susceptible to being contacted by internet sex offenders from the very first time a chat session is initiated, according to a study of online social networking patterns published in the July issue of the American Journal of Nursing (AJN). The study, conducted by a research team working under a United States Department of Justice grant, found that more than two-thirds (63.3%) of internet sexual offenders initiate the topic of sex with middle school and high school students during their first chat session, underscoring the significant issue of on-line risky behavior between sexual offenders and their potential victims. AJN, the leading voice of nursing since 1900, is published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, part of Wolters Kluwer Health.

“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,” said researcher Elizabeth B. Dowdell, PhD, RN, CRNP associate professor at Villanova University College of Nursing, Villanova, PA. “The study surveyed middle school, high school, college age students as well as sexual offenders about their use of social networking sites in order to provide better education and prevention programs for use by nurses and other health care providers.”

Some other key findings from this study include:
• Sexual offenders and students frequent similar social network sites with offenders preferring Myspace and students preferring Facebook.
• More than half of the Internet sexual offenders say that they disguise their identity when online.
• The majority of Internet sexual offenders prefer communicating with teenage girls rather than boys.
• High school students’ experience with sexting (the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily between mobile phones) differs significantly by sex and according to type and location of school. More than half (56.7%) of girls reported they knew about sexting compared to less than half (46.9%) of the boys. More private schools (75%) knew about sexting than public school students (50%). Some students have been threatened or assaulted by people they met online: Of the 59 middle school students who reported chatting with strangers online, 32 students (54%) reported that they had met the individual in-person, and of those 32 students, three (10%) reported being sexually assaulted or inappropriately touched.
• Of the 926 high school boys surveyed, a total of 146 answered questions about meeting an online stranger; of these, 51 (34.9%) reported meeting off-line with a stranger, 33 (22.6%) reported that “something sexual” (consensual) happened at the meeting, and 10 (6.8%) reported being threatened or sexually assaulted as a result of the meeting. Of the 1,151 high school girls surveyed, 157 responded to questions about meeting an online stranger; of these, 58 (36.9%) reported subsequently meeting off-line with a stranger they’d met online, 21 (13.4%) reported something sexual happening at the meeting, and seven (4.5%) reported being threatened or sexually assaulted as a result of the meeting.
• Avatar sites, such as Second Life, are used by both students and Internet sexual offenders.

The Study
Questionnaires asking about various characteristics of participants’ usage of social networking sites were distributed and completed by 404 middle school students (ages 9-15), 2,077 high school students (ages 15-18), 1,284 students drawn from five traditional four-year colleges, and 466 male adults who had been convicted of either an Internet sexual offense or a hands-on sexual offense and/or a prior Internet offense. Data were collected from 2007 through 2009.

“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,” said Maureen Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN, editor-in-chief of AJN. “It is imperative that nurses’ keep pace with understanding these issues and educate students and parents to identify suspicious online behaviors. They can also assist schools in developing health programs about maintaining safety on the internet, and outreach for students who are harassed, threatened, or assaulted as a consequence of meeting someone online.”

Dr. Dowdell, the study’s lead author and a pediatric nurse practitioner, has an extensive background in forensic research, focusing on health risk behaviors and vulnerability across the lifespan, issues of violence, and the nursing care of children. The other members of the research team include lead investigator Robert Prentky of Fairleigh Dickinson University; Ann W. Burgess of Boston College; Neil Malamuth of the University of California-Los Angeles, and Paul Fedoroff of the University of Ottawa. The study was supported by a grant awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice.

Visit www.ajnonline.com to learn more or listen to a podcast with Dr. Dowdell.

About the American Journal of Nursing
The American Journal of Nursing (AJN) is ‘the leading voice of nursing since 1900’ and the most recognized nursing journal in the world (www.AJNonline.com). AJN has received more awards for editorial excellence and dissemination of information than any other nursing publication. It is published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (www.LWW.com).

About Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (LWW) is a leading international publisher for healthcare professionals and students with nearly 300 periodicals and 1,500 books in more than 100 disciplines publishing under the LWW brand, as well as content-based sites and online corporate and customer services.

LWW is part of Wolters Kluwer Health, a leading global provider of information, business intelligence and point-of-care solutions for the healthcare industry. Wolters Kluwer Health is part of Wolters Kluwer, a market-leading global information services company with 2010 annual revenues of €3.6 billion ($4.7 billion).


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