The objective of this paper is to deliberate the role the Internet has on the sexual exploitation of children today. The central premise is the crime of online child sexual exploitation with the specific attention on sexual predators' online grooming behaviours for procurement of children for sexual abuse. The paper begins with a brief overview of child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, followed by a short background of computers and the Internet. The paper shall examine and discuss sexual predators, online grooming, accessibility, anonymity, content, and victimisation and highlight an opposing view. During the course of the paper, the term children implies the ages 12 to 17 years, and the expression sexual predators applied to define adults who habitually seek out sexual situations that are deemed exploitative while the use of the word Internet encompasses the terms World Wide Web and cyberspace.
Throughout the course of this paper, I intend to demonstrate that, compared to previous generations, technology and the Internet has exposed children of the digital and virtual generation to the immeasurable vulnerability of becoming a victim of child sexual exploitation.
Child abuse is universal; it is an extensive social phenomena on a global level that occurs through four methods; neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse or sexual abuse (Rivett & Kelly, 2006 and Lancaster & Lumb, 1999). Child sexual abuse occurs when an adult uses their power or authority to involve a child in sexual activity (Child Rights International Network (CRIN), 2012). Child sexual abuse is a multi-layered problem; astonishingly complex in its characteristics, dynamics, causes and consequences with no universal definition (Hobday & Ollier, 2004; Price-Robertson, Bromfield, & Vassallo, 2010 and Browne & Lynch, 1995). Therefore, child sexual abuse can be understood to encompass physical, verbal or emotional abuse (Barber, 2012 and Friedman, 1990) and can involve exposing a sexual body part to a child, and talking in a sexually explicit way (Finkelhor & Hotaling, 1984).
With the introduction of the Internet, online child sexual abuse has subsequently entered the perplexing realm of child abuse. Child sexual abuse now encompasses; sending obscene text messages or emails, or showing pornographic photographs to a child, solicitation, and online grooming to facilitate procurement of a child for sexual contact (Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011; Stanley, 2003). Choo indicated that a study showed that 85 to 95% of child sexual abuse cases, the child knew the perpetrator as an acquaintance or family member in real life but had used the Internet and other technology to further their grooming activities (2009, p. xiii). Therefore, it could be suggested that technology has enhanced opportunities of child sexual abuse for offenders.
The first personal computer became available in 1975 (Peter, 2004), and a new phenomenon entered the global landscape in 1969, but it was not until 1993 that it became a commercial product - the Internet (Jones & Quayle, 2005 and Peter, 2004). The Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2012), revealed Internet access exploded from 286,000 Internet households in 1996 to an incredible 13.1 million in 2010/2011. In almost two decades, the Internet has moved from an ambiguous communications vehicle to a vast virtual world and a ubiquitous fixture in homes, schools and workplaces; an indispensable component of millions of people's lives (Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011 and Quayle, Vaughan, & Taylor, 2006). The universality of this technology revolution has changed lives in dramatic ways by shortening the geographical distances and facilitating ways to share information (Stanley, 2001). Computers and the Internet are valuable tools for children's learning, but like all revolutions, the Internet has simultaneously brought about a darker side (Won, Ok-Ran, Chulyun, & Jungmin, 2011; Jones & Quayle, 2005 and Stanley, 2001) including the establishment of online child sexual exploitation from sexual predators.
Child sexual exploitation is an umbrella term for a spectrum of negative sexual experiences including exposure to unwanted sexually implicit material and uninvited requests for sexual conversations (Burgess, Mahoney, Visk & Morgenbesser, 2008 and Jones & Quayle, 2005). The Internet created a portal for sexual predators to further facilitate child sexual exploitation.
The Internet has become is a double edged sword (Won et al, 2011), although it is an indispensable element of life with the average Australian child spending between 11 to 21hrs per week online (Irvine, 2009), it also delivers new prospects for sexual predators to sexually exploit young Internet users. Sexual predators have been part of society throughout history (Choo, 2009), and now the Internet provides an opportunity for sexual predators to employ grooming behaviours online for solicitation, harassment, exploitation, production of abuse images and participate in abusive acts (Dombrowski, LeMansey, Ahia, & Dickson, 2004 and Quayle, Vaughan, & Taylor, 2006). Feather (1999) acknowledges that the "internet has been shown to act as a new medium through which some commonly recognised forms of child maltreatment, sexual and emotional abuse may be pursued." Australia, in 2006, had 130 completed prosecutions for online child sexual exploitation offenses, in the same year the United Kingdom had 322 cases while the United States case reports grew from 4,560 in 1998 to an astonishing 76,584 by the end of 2006 (Choo, 2009, pp. xi -xii). The Internet has provided an accessible gateway for sexual predators to enter the homes of children previously unattainable as prior to the Internet the act of grooming by sexual predators would have required the predator to physically stalk their victims or to know them through legitimate reasons (Armagh, 1998).
Child grooming typically begins through a non-sexual, manipulative approach to assist the enticement of a child through active engagement, and by utilising their skills of power and control to lower a child's inhibitions, to desensitise them and to gain their trust before luring them into interaction ("Australian Institute of Criminology - Online child grooming laws", 2008; Choo, 2009; Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011; Beech, Elliott, Birgden & Findlater, 2008 and Gallagher, 2007). Child grooming is not a new phenomenon; "it dates back to when child sexual abuse was first identified and define" (Martellezzo, cited in Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011, p. 104). The traditional process of child grooming entailed close physical proximity to a child and many sexual predatory selected jobs as "child-serving professionals or volunteers," this enabled them to have positions of authority and to gain children's trust more easily (Berson, 2003, p. 10). The conventional methods placed the sexual predator at significant personal risk as they were exposed to suspicion of any special attention or affection directed towards a child (Armagh, 1998 & Gallagher, 2007).
The Internet aids sexual predators to shorten the trust building period and to simultaneously have access to multiple victims across the globe (Berson, 2003 and Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011). Sexual predators utilise the Internet to groom a child for either immediate sexual gratification or to persistently groom a child online to lay the foundations for sexual abuse in the physical world (Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011 and Quayle, Vaughan & Taylor, 2006). Choo (2009, p. xii) stated that in the United States in 2006, there were 6,384 reports made regarding online enticement. The advent of the Internet facilitates sexual predators a formidable utopia of opportunity for sexual abuse through easier, simpler and faster instant access to potential child victims worldwide. The central differences for sexual predators in the physical world and the online world are accessibility and anonymity.
The Internet changed the way people interact, and online communication has become an integral part of society. Instant messaging and chat rooms are readily accessed by sexual predators to discover and target potential victims (Berson, 2003; Choo, 2009; Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011 and Stanley, 2001). Choo (2009) indicates that studies have shown 55% of sexual predators utilise social networking sites to enable "quick, effective and ostensibly with confidentiality." Sexual predators employ their skills by exploiting search engines to locate publically available information on children and their activities, and acquiring personal information from participating in chat rooms which, then permits them to attract, manipulate and build long term virtual relationships with potential victims (Berson, 2003; Choo, 2009; Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011 and Stanley, 2001). According to Choo (2009) a study in the United States in 2006 indicated that 71% of children have established an online profile on social networking sites with 47% of them allowing their profiles to be public- viewable by anyone. 40% of sexual predators will read online profiles of children in an attempt to identify potential victims according to a study conducted by Malesky (2007). Social networking sites, chat rooms, and instant messaging support sexual predators access to children through real time open access to specific subject forums, searchable profiles, display of personal information, message boards and instant contact (Aiken, Moran & Berry, 2011; Calder, 2004; Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011; Dombrowski et al, 2004 and Marcum, 2007). Before the Internet, this type of information and access would have been almost impossible for a predator to acquire.
The Internet provides a previously unattainable degree of anonymity and this allows a sexual predator to hide behind their masquerade personas to entice interaction with children (Choo, 2009). One of the main attractions of the Internet for sexual predators is the anonymity. A child does not always know who they are interrelating with, and they may think they know, but unless it is a school friend or a relative, they genuinely cannot be sure. Utilising concealment of identity, many sexual predators are more inclined to behave deviant; uninhibited through anonymity and the depersonalised isolation of the virtual world with little risk of detection (Aiken et al, 2011 & Burgess et al, 2008). Feather (1999, p. 7) specified that many child sexual predators "lurk" in chat rooms - they remain in the background intensively reading chat room posts without actually commenting themselves, they monitor the rooms looking for potential victims or they use a pseudonym to facilitate interaction. In 2006, there were 850,000 cases of children receiving unwanted sexual approaches in chat rooms online in the United Kingdom, many anonymously or posing as a child (Choo, 2009). The main aim of concealing their identities is to gain the trust of a child to facilitate the eventual physical contact. A study by Malesky (2007) revealed 80% of participants frequented chat rooms geared towards minors and used pseudonyms to improve their chances of making contact with a child and to eventually generate an offline meeting. Technical advances have introduced sexual predators to protocols and programs that enable them to conceal their identities which makes it difficult to trace and locate them (Choo, 2009). The proliferation and ease of accessibility has allowed for child sexual predators to electronically creep into the bedrooms of children where they engage in sexually explicit chat, cyber voyeurism and exhibitionism over the expanding Internet.
Since the Internet is largely uncensored and only partially regulated (Stanley, 2003) it has enabled sexual predators to expose children to negative content such as pornography and sexually explicit material. The unprecedented ease of access to the Internet introduced a vehicle for the flow of digital and electronic data of sexually exploitative material including sexual imagery. The Cyber Tipline in the United States advocates that in 2002, 51 million images and videos of pornography were on the Internet depicting children and indicated that between 1998 and 2012, there were 1.3 million reports regarding sexual inappropriate conduct and material these included child pornography and unsolicited obscene material sent to a child ("National Center for Missing & Exploited Children", 2012). Sexual predators use pornography and sexually explicit materials to desensitise children to deviant sexual stimuli to encourage them to participate in sexual activities. 1 in 25 children have been asked to send sexual pictures of themselves to someone on the Internet (Mitchell, Finkelhor & Wolak, 2007). Children are the targets for most sexual predators as their social skills are generally incomplete and they are less likely to pick up on the relevant clues of grooming such as inappropriate remarks (Choo, 2009).
Children in the higher age brackets are more likely targets for sexual predators due in part to their greater mobility, sexual curiosity and autonomy (Choo, 2009 and Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011). These children have an intense interest in expanding social networks, taking risks and forming emotional bonds with others. They share more personal information, interact with strangers via chat rooms, email or post pictures online, visit adult content websites and chat rooms and agree to meet with someone in person when they met online.
Examination of literature for this paper indicated that the Internet poses real dangers to children and they can be vulnerable to sexual predators (for example see, Bersen, 2008; Choo, 2009 Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011; Jones & Quayle, 2005; Malesky, 2005 and Stanley, 2001). Even though Byron cited in Moran et al indicated that sexual predators may be increasingly moving online, given the increasingly restrictive 'real world' access to children, it is impossible to determine the full extent of the numbers of children who have experienced online child sexual exploitation due to most cases not being reported but an Australian study estimated 28% of girls and 9% of boys have in some form been sexually exploited online (Choo, 2009).
Wolak, Finkelhor, Mitchell and Ybarra (2008) argue that the Internet has only provided a new avenue for an old crime and suggest that through their research Internet initiated sexual abuse numbers are largely inaccurate. They suggest that the majority of the physical offline encounters is between adult men and underage adolescents who used online communities and were aware they were conversing with adults who rarely deceived them about their sexual interests and that the estimated 500 arrests in the United States for statutory rape occurring from internet contact 95% are non-forcible - the adolescent was a willing participant. Richards (2011) suggests that situational and environmental factors play a key role in sexual offending and research has shown that most sexual predators are known to their victims; they are not targeted by strangers. Tomison (2001) specifies that in Australia it was not until the late 1900's did welfare groups begin to recognise that most perpetrators of child sexual abuse were from within the family; known as intrafamilial sexual abuse (Smallbone & Wortley, 2001). In the 1920's child sexual abuse became characterised as abuse committed by strangers; known as extrafamilial sexual abuse (Smallbone & Wortley, 2001). Today it appears to be seen as a mixture of both.
In conclusion, child sexual abuse is a multifaceted problem, and the Internet has now contributed to the complexities of this. Child sexual predators are those who take unfair advantage of some imbalance of power between themselves and a child in order to sexually use them either online or in the physical world. Sexual predators predominately utilise the art of grooming to entice the trust of a child and while has been a part of the physical world of sexual predators in previous generations, the Internet has facilitated the use of grooming to a whole new level on the next generation. The Internet is a continuous, evolving entity that has become part of mainstream life. It has evolved from humble beings in the late 1960's to an immeasurable phenomenon way into the future, millions of families have instant, fast access the Internet daily and this too shall continue to grow with the introduction in Australia of a national broadband network.
This paper demonstrated that most sexual predators, who commit sexual abuse on a child in the physical world, initially become acquainted with the child by communication over the Internet and employed more advanced grooming techniques to gain a child's trust. The paper established that the Internet has had a dramatic impact on the evolution of child exploitation by providing an avenue for sexual predators to seek out potential victims and to communicate with them. The rapid development and explosive use of the Internet have allowed for increased opportunities for recruiting children for sexually purposes through social networking sites and chat rooms and the paper identified the Internet as an ideal setting for child sexual exploitation through anonymity and the ease with which one can masquerade. Finally, this paper has identified and ultimately demonstrated that through the revolution of the Internet it provided new tools for sexual predators to sexually exploit children in the digital and virtual generation.