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Burgess Aids Initiatives on Internet Safety for Children

Connell School of Nursing Professor Ann Burgess (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: May 12, 2011

Connell School of Nursing Professor Ann Burgess and a team of researchers have released several law enforcement bulletins as part of a US Justice Department-funded project aimed at improving Internet safety and reducing online sexual victimization of children and adolescents.   

The bulletins are intended to assist law enforcement officers and other frontline officials in apprehending offenders and preventing criminal activity.   

“We can do nothing about the advance of cyber technology or the cyber sophistication of some child molesters. However, we can improve considerably our understanding of the offenders, or would-be offenders...who use the Internet as a vehicle for identifying, locating, grooming, and assaulting children,” write the researchers in their bulletin.   

Burgess and her colleagues examined data on more than 460 child molesters and Internet sex offenders. They identified characteristics of Internet sex offenders that can help law enforcement officers and prosecutors in preparing for suspect interviews and depositions and in developing better Internet safety programs.   

The researchers honed in on the question: What is the likelihood that someone charged with an Internet-related sex offense is also a hands-on child molester? They determined that two variables, Internet preoccupation and antisocial behavior, best led them to be able to predict that outcome. An Internet sex offender who also had a history of non-sexual antisocial behavior from childhood to adulthood (expulsion from school, fighting, cruel behavior toward an animal, etc.) is more likely to also be a child molester, no matter how much time he spends on the Internet.   

However, if the Internet sex offender has a high level of Internet preoccupation but no previous antisocial behavior, he is less likely to be a child molester.  

For another bulletin, the researchers used data collected from thousands of middle school, high school and college students to better understand how some children become victims of Internet sex offenders while others do not.  

One of the more startling statistics was that more than half of middle school students (grades 6-8) reported meeting someone in person that they had previously only known online.  

“We can no longer say to children ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’” said Burgess. “Kids are talking to others online and, in their minds, these people are not strangers.”  

Burgess says that many parents are in denial or use their own technological insufficiencies as a reason for not policing their children on the Internet. This has consequences, point out the researchers: Students who engaged in risky Internet behaviors were more likely to participate in health-risk behaviors such as drinking alcohol or smoking.  

Parents and guardians reported having a high level of trust in their children’s Internet use. These parents/guardians reported not checking their children’s Internet histories, cookies or previously visited websites. But parents’ reliance on filters or blocking software package offers a false sense of protections, as the research shows that 24 percent of middle school students, 54 percent of high school boys, and 32 percent of high school girls reported being able to manipulate or disable the filter/blocking software.  

“Parents have to have their children’s passwords. If a child refuses to divulge a password, that’s a red flag,” said Burgess.  

A special area of concern for Burgess is children’s exposure to pornography over the Internet. Because viewing pornography can lead to viewing more deviant material, Burgess and the other researchers warn that Internet pornography can put children not only at risk of browsing traumatizing content, but also in danger of prosecution for criminal possession or transmission of pornography. They also increase their exposure to adult child molesters.   

The other members of the research team are: Lead investigator Robert Prentky of Fairleigh Dickinson University; Elizabeth Dowdell of Villanova University; 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.