Online Pedophilia and Cyberspace
Christopher Greco, Ph.D. student, Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa
- Although it is impossible to assess the prevalence of child pornography in cyberspace, it is clear that the easy access to such material and the anonymity provided by the Internet have contributed considerably to increasing the exchange of this type of pornography.
- It would be exaggerated to claim that the Internet can “produce” new deviants. Moreover, the factors that cause people to engage in pedophilic behaviour vary from one person to the next depending on their circumstances and environment.
- There is no typical profile of a child pornography user or an online predator, apart from the fact that almost all perpetrators reported to police are men.
- The fight against online pedophilia and Internet luring requires, first and foremost, raising young people’s awareness and developing their discernment when it comes to using the Internet.
1) What is online pedophilia?
- Any effort to define “online pedophilia” poses a challenge involving many methodological pitfalls.
- First of all, the term “cyberspace” refers to a myriad of interconnected computer networks (e.g. discussion groups, email, the Web, chat rooms) that change constantly and have their own specific characteristics (e.g. some are public, while others are private).
- Second, the category “online pedophile” is inevitably an oversimplification of a reality encompassing several different types of individuals:1,2,3,4,5,6
- people who view child pornography (online voyeurs);
- people who make and distribute child pornography;
- child sexual abusers who use the Internet to achieve their ends (online predators); and pedophiles.
- However, for the sake of readability and despite its shortcomings, the term “online pedophile” will be used here to refer to this heterogeneous group of individuals whose interactions are focused essentially on child pornography in cyberspace and whose behaviour is punishable under certain sections of Canada’s Criminal Code: section 163.1, which prohibits the making, distribution and accessing of child pornography, and section 172.1., which since 2002 prohibits the luring of children
2) Do the Internet and cyberspace encourage pedophiles to engage in sexual abuse?
- Identifying possible links between the use of child pornography and the perpetration of sexual abuse is a complex task.
- Some researchers believe that viewing child pornography reduces urges and provides people with a means of living out their fantasies without actually abusing children. However, others say that, on the contrary, it neutralizes viewers’ guilt about their deviant feelings and thus legitimizes child abuse in their eyes.7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16
“It would be exaggerated to claim that the Internet can ‘produce’ new deviants. At the most, we can assume that increased access to child pornography as a result of technological developments can potentially fuel an already existing deviant interest in the case of certain individuals, under certain conditions.”
3) Types of online pedophiles
- According to available data, i.e. information obtained from individuals already known to the justice system, there is no typical profile of an online pedophile, apart from the fact that most perpetrators are men.
- Nonetheless, four main categories of online pedophile can be defined on the basis of studies on users of child pornography. These categories are:19,20,21,22
- the collector, who keeps contact with other Internet users to a minimum;
- the collector/distributor, who participates in child pornography communities that play a very important role for “online pedophiles”, in that they offer a venue for exchanging technical advice on how to avoid being arrested, for providing mutual encouragement to share child pornography, and for seeking justification for a passion they know is deviant;23,24
- the user/abuser (online or offline predator), who sometimes makes and distributes child pornography showing the abuse he commits;
- the “occasional” user, or the online voyeur who is invisible to researchers and the police because he never downloads the material he views in cyberspace.17
4) Types of online predators
Luring a child by a means of telecommunication (s. 172.1 of the Canada’s Criminal Code) or Internet luring
An online predator is a person who uses a computer, particularly the Internet, to communicate with a minor (by email, chatting or instant messaging) for the purpose of committing a sexual offence or abducting the child.
- Online predators fall into two categories:
- those who pretend to be a young person and who seek to manipulate their potential victims to the point where they can sexually abuse them;
- those who do not lie about their age or sexual interests and who introduce themselves as a friend, confidant or even a mentor who will help the young person discover his or her sexuality.25,26 According to Wolak et al. (2008)26 and the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, coercion and threats are far from being the rule for this type of online predator. Nonetheless, the kind of behaviour the predator engages in is prohibited by the Canadian Criminal Code even if the young person targeted is fully aware that any future meeting with his online correspondent would be of a sexual nature.
It must always be borne in mind that the vast majority of incidents of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by family members and other people who are known to the victim rather than by anonymous Internet users on the lookout for potential victims, even though sad examples of this latter reality exist.
5) The impact of the Internet on the exchange of child pornography
- The rapid development of the Internet has radically changed the situation with regard to child pornography.27,28
- The three “A’s” of the virtual world, “accessibility”, “affordability” and “anonymity”, facilitate more than ever before illegal exchanges of child pornography between users, whether for the purpose of distributing and making such pornography or of luring children for sexual purposes.
- Since the Internet is not subject to geographical boundaries, it enables child pornography users around the globe to share their collections and discuss their deviant interest in the privacy of their own home, hidden behind their online identity.29,30,31,32 This is a far cry from the way child pornography circulated in the past, when users exchanged tangible material (tapes, DVDs, magazines) in person or by mail in the real world. Today, anyone who has access to a computer or a smartphone and an Internet connection can download any amount of child pornography from the large quantity of material available in cyberspace.
6) Prevalence of the problem
The bulk of child pornography still circulates free of charge among users, mainly on insider networks rather than on the visible Web used by ordinary people.7,33 This makes it next to impossible to develop a statistical portrait of online child pornography
- Due to the undergroundand unlawful nature of these exchanges, coupled with the complexity of the many rapid technological advances, it is risky to try and estimate the prevalence of online child pornography. Nonetheless, it can be said that there is a substantial amount of this material available in cyberspace.
- For instance, in 2003, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children already had a bank of over 450 000 images. In addition, Cybertip.ca, Canada’s tipline for reporting online sexual exploitation of children, has drawn attention to the fact that the number of reported cases is growing every year and has reached about 700 per month.
- It is also difficult to determine the prevalence of luring and sexual soliciting of young people in Canada and Québec because many such cases are never brought to the attention of the authorities. For information purposes, it should be noted that 89 cases with at least one child luring charge resulted in a guilty verdict in Canada between 2003 and 2007.34 Between 2006 and 2007, a total of 464 incidents of child luring were reported to police, representing 3 incidents of child luring per 100 000 youth under the age of 18 in Canada. Of these cases, 30% led to the laying or recommendation of child luring charges.34
7) The fight against online pedophilia
- The fight against online pedophilia poses major challenges and requires three types of actions:
- First of all, steps must be taken to facilitate police surveillance and detection. This will help to address some of the problems involved in online pedophilia investigations, particularly the rapid development of the Internet and the often international character of such investigations, which requires close collaboration between several police forces governed by different laws. Canada is well equipped from a legal standpoint to deal with the many facets of online pedophilia. Since the passage of Bill C-22 in March 2011, Internet service providers and other persons who supply Internet service, such as Facebook or Google, must report child pornography incidents to the police. According to the criteria established by the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (www.icmec.org), Canada is now a world leader in the fight against online pedophilia.
- Second, steps must be taken to promote civic action. It is up to Internet users as a whole to report websites, images and speech deemed to be illegal and/or tendentious to people with the authority to take appropriate legal action. Such material can be reported on a number of websites, including www.cybertip.ca and those of Québec’s police forces, particularly the Sûreté du Québec (www.sq.gouv.qc.ca).
- Lastly, steps must be taken to develop and invest more heavily in awareness and education campaigns targeting children, parents and teachers. Such campaigns should focus on developing critical thinking about the use of the Internet and on educating young people about sex, rather than on fostering fear of online predators. For although such fear is necessary, it is seldom uppermost in young people’s minds. Organizations like Action Innocence, Cybertip and MediaSmarts offer numerous avenues for thought and action to keep at-risk practices, and thus the risk of victimization, to a minimum in cyberspace, whether such victimization is in the form of sexual abuse, damage to reputation (e.g. through “sexting”) or distribution of illegal images. As well, a report put out by the Ministère de la Sécurité publique du Québec in 201135 describes the positive impact of greater public awareness and efforts to detect online victimization. It can be concluded, therefore, that information, awareness, education and detection are the watchwords in the fight against child pornography and online pedophilia.
Last update: November 2012
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