A Safety Net for the Internet:
Protecting Our Children

by Daniel Armagh

It is every parent's nightmare. You turn on your home computer and are shocked to see disturbing images of children being physically abused, sexually molested, tortured, and even murdered. You investigate further and discover sexually explicit, obscene e-mail from a cyberpredator intended for your preteen son or daughter. You race up the stairs to your child's bedroom to discuss what you have discovered, only to find the receipt for a plane ticket to a destination across the country on the dresser and clothes missing from the closet.

Such nightmares are becoming a reality for a small but increasing number of parents as more families go online. While the Internet offers a vast array of helpful information, access often comes with little, if any, warning of the risks it poses to children, who may unwittingly invite dangerous predators into their home.

Responsible parents advise their children never to talk to strangers who approach them in person or over the telephone. Wise parents instruct their children to tell them about any such encounters. Yet the same parents rarely educate their children about the dangers of exchanges with strangers on the Internet, often because they are unaware of the risk to their children or of measures to protect them.

Cyberplayground for Predators

According to authorities, there is unprecedented growth in child pornography in the United States largely because of the Internet, which provides child sexual predators with a virtually undetectable means of sending and receiving illicit Photo-keyboardimages of children (Huycke, 1997). Because of its anonymity, rapid transmission, and unsupervised nature, the Internet has become the venue of choice for predators who transmit and receive child pornography. "The Internet is the ultimate distribution system for child pornography," says Robert Flores, a former attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice's Criminal Division, Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (Kaplan, 1997). "Before the Internet, pedophiles and child predators targeted children in parks and playgrounds, offering ice cream or candy to gain the child's trust." Today, the virtual playground of cyberspace affords these child sexual predators1 the opportunity to engage children in anonymous exchanges that often lead to personal questions designed to assess whether the child can be lured into sexual conversations and sexual contact.

Cleverly adept at communicating with children, child sexual predators hide behind the anonymity of the Internet to become whoever and whatever best serves the ultimate objective of many child sexual predators, face-to-face contact with a child. Once a child is lured into meeting the predator, the realization of the predator's pornographic fantasies can become the realization of a parent's greatest fear -- the criminal exploitation of one's child.

Perverse Pattern

Dr. Chris Hatcher, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, explains that pedophiles who contact children display a specific developmental pattern: "It begins with fantasy, moves to gratification through pornography, then voyeurism, and finally to contact."2 The Internet is a superhighway down the path of that perverse pattern, giving child sexual predators instant access to potential victims and anonymity until a face-to-face meeting can be arranged.

Online predators use an escalating pattern of questions once contact with a child is made. One detective described the pattern in this way:

First, they want to know your age and what you look like -- height, weight, and bra size if [you're] a girl. Then they want you to describe your underwear. From there, they want to know if [you're] a virgin and the conversations become more explicit . . . The pattern intensifies when the child predator asks for photographs of the child or begins to send photos via e-mail showing various forms of pornography, usually involving child pornography or cartoon characters familiar to the child which have been altered to depict sexual activity. When the child predator thinks the time is right, he will suggest a face to face meeting.3

Regardless of law enforcement's ability to detect and arrest child sexual predators using the Internet, the most effective protection against child victimization is an involved and educated parent. If parents are to protect their children against cyberpredators, they must understand the rationale and methodology in using the Internet to approach potential victims. Parents must be aware that the Internet has created an easily accessible source of stimulation for these predators. One pedophile related the following:

You can download pictures in complete anonymity. You do not have to have any human contact. Anonymity is so crucial because your average child molester is not the dirty old man in a trench coat, but a teacher at your local elementary school. The Internet becomes his outlet. Successful pedophiles are better with your children than you are. They give them more attention. They are your swim coach, your Sunday school teacher -- people you trust your child to everyday.4

Trolling Chat Rooms

Internet chat rooms may provide the greatest opportunity for sexual exploitation of children. Although most child sexual predators are aware that law enforcement is present on the Internet in some capacity, the odds of being caught at any given time are on the side of the predator, who often trolls chat rooms specifically designed for children. Chat rooms featuring subjects that attract children and teenagers, such as music, sports, or fashion, are prime targets of child sexual predators, who often disguise themselves as peers.


The risk of direct exploitation by online child predators is not the only danger posed to children by the Internet. On the World Wide Web, where any organization may publish a Web page that promotes its philosophy and offers products catering to its tastes, organizations such as the North American Man/Boy Love Association provide support groups to bolster and empower pedophiles. One site, called Boys in the Real World, features nude and seminude prepubescent boys and teens and has received more than 250,000 "hits" (visitors) in a 3-month period. Another site has a startlingly straightforward mission statement that calls for acceptance of boy lovers who see no need to change a behavior they feel is natural.

What historically has been an isolated -- if not ostracized -- population is forming unprecedented numbers of support groups in cyberspace to advance the acceptance of a lifestyle that embraces child sexual exploitation. Leading experts are concerned that such online support groups validate antisocial and even criminal behaviors. According to psychotherapist Gary Hewitt, who counsels teens with sexual dysfunctions often related to abuse, "The support group sites give pedophiles a real sense of power, and the impetus to go out and molest someone."5

Protecting Our Children

The stark truth about the Internet is that it can expose children to vile and degrading materials in the sanctuary of their homes and open the door to dangerous child sexual predators. While law enforcement is doing its best to meet the challenge posed by a technology that changes from day to day, the primary responsibility for protecting children rests with their parents. As John Perry Barlow, cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, points out, "The hard truth is that the burden [of protecting your children on the Internet] ultimately falls where it always has: on the parents. If you don't want your children fixating on filth, [you] better step up to the tough task of raising them to find it as distasteful as you do yourself" (Elmer-DeWitt, 1995).

The child sexual predator is aware that many parents do not alert their children to the perils of the Internet and generally know far less about computers than their children know. The predator counts on the neglect and ignorance of parents when it comes to their children's access to the Internet. Overtures to children often take place while mom and dad are watching television in the next room and are oblivious to the Internet intruder who is stalking their child.

Protective Measures

Photo-Mother and Child at computerParents should keep the family computer in a central location where the child is not isolated, limit the time the child spends online, set guidelines and rules for computer use, and learn about Internet technology in order to better monitor their child's online activity. Sergeant Nick Battaglia of the San Jose Police Department's Child Exploitation Unit, San Jose, CA, advises parents to go online with their children as often as possible and help them identify inappropriate communications.6 Parents should get to know their children's cyberspace friends, just as they would want to know their real-life friends.

Parents should stress that people encountered in chat rooms are strangers and that the same rules apply to cyberspace strangers as to those encountered in the real world. A recent pamphlet suggests the following rules (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1997):

Bullet Never give out identifying information in a public message such as one posted to a chat room or bulletin board, and be sure you're dealing with someone that both you and your child know and trust before giving out such information via e-mail. Think carefully before revealing any personal information such as age, marital status, or financial information. Consider using a pseudonym or unlisting your child's name if your Internet service provider (ISP) allows it.
Bullet Get to know the services available from the ISP that your child uses. Find out what types of information your ISP offers and whether there are ways for parents to block access to objectionable material.
Bullet Never allow a child to arrange a face-to-face meeting with another computer user without parental permission, and then only in a public area with a parent present.
Bullet Never respond to messages or bulletin board items that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or threatening, or make you feel uncomfortable. Encourage your children to tell you if they encounter such messages. If you or your child receives a message that is harassing, sexual in nature, or threatening, forward a copy of the message to your ISP and ask for their assistance.

Parents also may want to have their child sign an Agreement To Abide by the Rules and post the agreement and the rules near the computer. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (1997) offers the following as appropriate rules:

Bullet I will not give out personal information such as my address, telephone number, parent's work address/telephone number, or the name of my school without my parent's permission.
Bullet I will tell my parents right away if I come across any information that makes me feel uncomfortable.
Bullet I will never agree to get together with someone I "meet" online without first checking with my parents. If my parents agree to the meeting, I will be sure that it is in a public place and bring my mother or father along.
Bullet I will never send a person my picture or anything else without first checking with my parents.
Bullet I will not respond to any messages that are mean or in any way make me feel uncomfortable. It is not my fault if I get a message like that. If I do, I will tell my parents right away so they can contact the online service.
Bullet I will talk with my parents so that we can set up rules for going online. We will decide upon the time of day that I can be online, the length of time I can be online, and appropriate areas for me to visit. I will not access other areas or break these rules without their permission.

Use and Limits of Cyberfilters

Parents should find out what controls are available through their Internet service provider and consider augmenting them with filtering software such as CyberSitter, KidCode, Netnanny, or SurfWatch to block objectionable material. SurfWatch matches a potential Internet destination to a proprietary list of forbidden sites. In addition, the software package looks for objectionable language and blocks sites containing that language. Microsoft, Netscape, and Progressive Networks have collaborated to develop even more sophisticated protective devices that should be available soon.

Filtering options are not foolproof -- they may not block all objectionable materials and may prevent access to sites approved by parents. They are simply one step in providing a line of defense against cyberpredators. Parents should be aware that the child sexual predator, or even the child, may find ways to bypass blocking software.

Not all children who are victimized via the Internet are innocents who took a wrong turn on the information superhighway. Some have deliberately strayed into the seamy side of the cyberworld. Supervisory Special Agent Kenneth Lanning of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Missing and Exploited Children's Task Force cautions, "Investigators must recognize that many of the children lured away from their homes after online computer conversations are not complete innocents duped while doing their homework. Most are curious, rebellious, or troubled adolescents seeking sexual information or contact. Nevertheless, they have been seduced and manipulated by a clever offender and do not fully understand or recognize what they are getting into."7

Computer Access Outside the Home

Photo-boy at computerAlthough parents may have installed blocking software on the family computer and set up a system to monitor its use, they also need to be aware of their child's use of the Internet when visiting friends who have computers. Parents should talk to their children about following the same rules for computer use wherever they are -- not just at home. Children need to know that they can talk to their parents about anyone whose behavior makes them uncomfortable and that they can and should return home from any situation that violates their sense of appropriate behavior. In addition, parents should be aware of the policies concerning computer use at the school or public library and the kinds of blocking devices used, if any, to filter out sexually explicit material.

Reason for Concern

Research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, shows the reason for such concerns. Drawing on computer records of online activity, researchers measured the material being downloaded in comparison with the stated reasons for Internet use. The results were enlightening.

In an 18-month study, the research team reviewed 917,410 images that were downloaded; 83.5 percent were pornographic. Trading in sexually explicit images is currently one of the largest recreational applications of users of computer networks. At one university, 13 of the 40 most frequently visited newsgroups featured sexually explicit posts. The study demonstrated that these materials go beyond the soft-core pornography on magazine racks. The online market features images of pedophilia (nude photographs of children in various poses), hebephilia (youth/teens), and paraphilia (images of bondage, sadomasochism, urination, defecation, and sex acts with animals) (Rimm, 1995).

The flow of such objectionable material via the Internet into our homes, schools, and libraries -- wherever computers may be found -- raises reasonable concerns that are too important to ignore, especially when they endanger the future of America's children. Congress made an initial attempt to combat these dangers by enacting the Communications Decency Act. However, this Act was held unconstitutional in Federal court in July 1997.8 Nevertheless, concerned parents and citizens have legitimate interests in ensuring that children have the opportunity to benefit from the best the Internet has to offer while being protected from its worst. Common sense, communication with children, and constant vigilance are the best weapons against the cyberpredator. Parental involvement in the cyberlife of children is crucial to safeguarding their future and, perhaps, their real-world lives.


1. For the purposes of this article, the term "child sexual predator" is used by the author to encompass the terms "pedophile" and "child molester."

2. Dr. Chris Hatcher, professor of psychology, University of California, personal communication, October 1997.

3. Detective Michael Sullivan, e-mail transcripts from 1996-1997, Illinois Internet Child Exploitation Unit, Naperville, IL.

4. Bob Trebilcock, unpublished interview with a convicted pedophile, April 1997.

5. Gary Hewitt, Ph.D., personal communication, December 1997.

6. Sergeant Nick Battaglia, personal communication, November 1997.

7. Kenneth V. Lanning, personal communication, December 1997.

8. Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 117 U.S. 2329 (1997).


Elmer-DeWitt, P. 1995. On a screen near you: It's popular, pervasive, and surprisingly perverse according to the first survey of online erotica. Time (July 3):38.

Huycke, D. 1997. Protecting our children: U.S. Customs Service Child Pornography Enforcement Program. Police Chief Journal (February):34.

Kaplan, D. 1997. New cybercop tricks to fight child porn. U.S. News and World Report (May 26):29.

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 1997 (February). Child Safety on the Information Highway. Pamphlet. Arlington, VA: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Interactive Services Association.

Rimm, M. 1995. Marketing pornography on the information highway. Georgetown Law Journal 83:1849.

Reporting Internet Abuse

If you become aware of the transmission, use, or viewing of child pornography while online, notify law enforcement and your online service provider after you have contacted the appropriate local authorities.

On December 1, 1997, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), in conjunction with Senator Judd Gregg (New Hampshire), announced a new CyberTipline to serve as a national resource for tips and leads regarding the sexual exploitation of children. NCMEC encourages families to call this toll-free hotline (800-843-5678) to report incidents involving child sexual exploitation, including online enticement of children for sexual acts.

Daniel Armagh is the director of the American Prosecutors Research Institute's National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. The Center provides training and technical assistance to prosecutors and other professionals involved in the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases.

Juvenile Justice Journal   ·   Volume V   ·   Number 1   ·   May 1998