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A warning to parents: Older men seeking young girls on Web is increasing

Published: Saturday, Aug. 24 2013 5:30 p.m. MDT

A growing trend of older men seeking younger girls on social media has law enforcers, child advocates and parents concerned.

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ALPINE — Indica Huddleston is 16.

But even her mother admits the pretty girl with long brown hair and olive skin could easily pass for 20 in some of her pictures. And like many teen girls, Indica is flattered when a boy — or even a man in his 20s — makes nice comments about her looks, her mother says.

"She just thinks, 'Wow, I'm getting all this attention. All these guys want to be my friend,'" Andrea Huddleston said.

For a week, the Huddlestons feared their daughter was in danger, perhaps running off with a man she met on Facebook who she thought was a friend but was really just a predator.

"You and I both know that who you see (on Facebook) is not who you're getting, necessarily," Huddleston said. "I know that could be anybody trying to friend me. But a 16-year-old, they just have a teenage brain. They just don't think it's going to happen to them. They want to think that cute guy is their friend."

Friday evening, law enforcers announced that Indica had been found safe in Salt Lake County and was reunited with her family.

"She's doing very well. We're not supposed to say much about where she's been, but we do know she left the state," Huddleston said Saturday.

Details about where Indica had been for a week or how she was found were not released Saturday. But it appeared that law enforcers actually found Indica as opposed to her returning home or contacting authorities.

"We know for sure there were other people involved," the girl's mother said.

Both local and federal agencies are involved in the investigation. Huddleston believed at least one person was being questioned as of Friday night.

Indica left a note on Aug. 16 indicating she had run away. Her mother believed one of the keys to finding her daughter would be Facebook, where her daughter had been spending a lot of time prior to her disappearance.

Indica had 1,550 Facebook friends, and at least 1,000 of them could be considered persons of interest, her mother told the Deseret News prior to her daughter being found.

"I didn't know she was talking to the kind of people she was talking to," Huddleston said. "I should have done a better job of monitoring, but I didn't."

But what Huddleston has since learned about her daughter's online activity caused her to lose sleep for a week.

The Huddlestons discovered that one of the men their daughter was friends with on Facebook was "absolutely a predator," though he is not believed to have been involved in this case.

"It's clear that she was heading down a road that was extremely dangerous with a predator that was an affiliate with a sex trafficking organization," Huddleston said.

And it's likely it wasn't just one man posing as someone else on Facebook, she said.

"Definitely we know there were bogus profiles," Huddleston said. "(There is) all this evidence that she thinks she's talking to one person and it's clearly not that person."

"She was lucky," family spokeswoman Tessa White added. "And a lot of girls don't get that lucky under those circumstances."

Social media predators

Younger girls getting together with much older men and then being abused is a growing problem, said Rod Layton, director of the Weber-Morgan Children's Justice Center.

"We see a lot of those cases," he said.

Layton, who used to work for the Weber County Sheriff's Office and the northern Utah bureau of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said every case of this type that he's seen has involved a female victim and male perpetrator. In most cases, the girls are 14 or 15 years old and the men are in their mid-20s.

The reason for the increase in cases: "It's all related to social media," he said.

In July, a 24-year-old Sandy man was charged in 3rd District Court with three counts of rape of a child, a first-degree felony, and three counts of child endangerment, a third-degree felony, after allegedly befriending a 13-year-old girl on Facebook, giving her heroin and impregnating her after they met in person.

Layton said he worked a case recently where a 24-year-old man met a 16-year-old girl online and eventually persuaded her to have sex with him in exchange for paying her cellphone bill. The girl told two of her friends about the deal, and they later participated as well, he said. The man was eventually arrested and convicted, according to Layton.

A report from the Utah Department of Health's Office of Vital Records and Statistics that looked at pregnancies of Utah girls ages 15 to 17 from 2006 to 2008 found that more than 600 of the fathers were ages 20 to 24, 120 were ages 25 to 29, and in 54 teen births the fathers were 30 or older.

In 43 percent of the pregnancies, the 15- to 17-year-old girls reported no information about the father.

Layton said he was seeing such a growing problem with older perpetrators abusing younger victims that he helped push a bill that passed the 2013 Utah Legislature that lowered the age difference for unlawful sexual conduct between 16- and 17-year-old victims and a perpetrator to seven years instead of 10.

The new law also makes it a crime to have sexual conduct with a 16- or 17-year-old if one person is 10 years or more older than the other, even if one party mistakenly believed the other was 18.

But despite a culture that tends to glamorize sex, Layton said he believes teens are not more knowledgable today about the subject than they were two decades ago.

"The maturity of the kids has not changed," he said. "A kid that is 14 and 15 nowadays is not any more mature than a kid was 20 years ago when they were 14 and 15 years old."

If a 25-year-old man approaches a teen girl on the street today and asks her to go to the movies with him, the girl would still say no, according to Layton.

"But when I get you on social media, when I get you on Facebook or when I start texting you, and I start to manipulate that kid, again, you have someone with no life experience here versus someone with a lot of life experience and knows how to manipulate," Layton said. "Then they break down those barriers. So when that (first) meeting takes place, they're friends now, even though they've never met."

The girl, however, may not have the same expectations as the man.

"The girl has a different perception of what's going to happen. The girl is going, 'This guy here, this is what I've been waiting for all my life. Here's my knight in shining armor. Here's the guy who's going to take me to the movies. He's going to buy me dinner. I'm ready to do that.' Whereas the guy is thinking sex," Layton said. "He's not thinking about a relationship."

While Indica was still missing, Huddleston said she believed her daughter's maturity level may have played into her situation. Her daughter may look 20, but "how she looks and how she thinks are two different things," she said.

What's the attraction?

So why do young girls "friend" older men on Facebook?

Amy Oxman, a licensed clinical social worker who works with children for trauma and abuse-related issues, says the reasons can be different for every girl.

"Sometimes it may be girls that are not feeling good about themselves … and somebody older is showing interest in them, and so that becomes very validating," Oxman said. "I think you would take 10 girls and it would be 10 different kind of things."

One question Oxman tries to get the children she counsels to consider is: "Why do you think this older guy was having this communication with you instead of someone his own age?"

Layton said he believes "it's a power thing. It's a power trip for those guys."

And one of the driving factors of older men seeking young girls online is a shift in trends in the pornography industry, he said. The most popular porn sites currently are those that involve young girls, he said.

"Porn has changed everything as far as relationships go, as far as how we perceive sex, what it does to relationships," Layton said. "In my opinion, that's the big difference — the availability of it."

Huddleston said she believes there is a "total disconnect" in older men who want to be with young girls that needs to be addressed.

"I think if men really understood that when they participate in pornography or in these kinds of things, they are actually committing a crime against their own mothers, their own family members and just womanhood in general," she said. "These people are past feeling. They have to have more exciting stimulus because they're past feeling."

Parental involvement

Both Layton and Oxman agree the best solution to the problem is for parents to educate their children and have frank discussions with their daughters.

"If parents do not sit down with their kids and be very, very blunt and straightforward with their kids," Layton said, then pausing. "Law enforcement doesn't fix anything. We don't prevent a single thing. We clean it up."

Huddleston jokingly said she initially considered moving to a deserted island with no Internet access when she got her daughter back.

"Early in the week, my mind went straight to security, and passwords and lockdown and just everything I could do, like get rid of Wi-Fi and move to the woods," she said. "I'm serious. I was just ready to find an island and take my family and never come back."

And while security is important, Huddleston said the real way she is going to prevent this from happening again is to develop a stronger relationship with her daughter.

"If you just go around putting controls on everything, kids are too smart. … They're going to go to their friends' houses. They're going to get on their friends' computers … and they're going to do what they want," she said.

Huddleston said she does not plan to ban Facebook in her house.

"I don't think we're going to take it away because I think when you go try to control a person, they just become more deceitful and more determined to do what they want to do," she said.

"My plan is to just get more involved, like make her really try to understand what just happened, what the commotion was about, why we were upset. And I want to help her see what real friends are, by making her look at my Facebook page and let her see what real friends look like and what kinds of things real friends say."

Indica's Facebook "friends" who raised red flags with her family were men who had a "more possessive" tone when talking to the teen. Huddleston said she was going to go through all of her daughter's Facebook friends with her and "unfriend" those she doesn't really know.

"There's probably no reason why they should be having communication with an older guy," Oxman said.

Children often are more savvy with electronics today than their parents, Oxman said. Parents not only need to know about Facebook and Twitter and monitor their kids' activity frequently, but they need to be educated about other popular forms of communication such as Snapchat and even online gaming.

"I was an idiot when it came to that," Huddleston said. "I had to learn the really hard way. But you can bet your bottom boots, I'm going to be as loud of an advocate for letting people know what these things are and for better Internet safety."

Snapchat, she said, already has been banned in her house.

Huddleston said she plans to interact with Indica every day about her social media activity, and she's also going to start limiting the time she spends on Facebook and other social media outlets.

"Teenagers are going to have that curiosity just as a normal part of being a teenager," Oxman said. "And I'm sure most teenagers think, 'Nothing bad will happen to me,' which is certainly just a teen mentality. So (it's important to help) them understand that they're getting into very risky territory."

Most teens see or hear about the glamour of sex in the movies, TV or in popular music, but "the consequences are never shown on Facebook," Layton said. "You just don't see that. You don't see it in the media. It's all wonderful, positive things.

"You can't go out and have sexual relations and not have it affect you in some way, especially girls," he said.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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