PROVO Internet predators prey on children who have poor relationships with their parents and are emotionally isolated, so LDS teachings about family togetherness can be a major safeguard for families.
Charles Knutson, associate professor of computer science at Brigham Young University, told an Education Week audience Wednesday that predators are very patient in zeroing in on "easy targets.
"Predators are masters at manipulation and skillful at extracting information over time. They will try to hack into kids' passwords to get personal information that helps to groom them," he said.
"The easy targets are kids with low self-image, who are lonely and friendless, have a poor relationship with their parents and are emotionally isolated from immediate friends and family. They spend a great deal of time online," often with a computer in their bedrooms where monitoring by other family members is difficult.
While parents often don't want to learn about predators' tactics, when parents take the time to understand those tactics and work to counteract them, most predators will move on to an easier target, Knutson said.
"The lion's share of battle is won when you limit the amount of time your children spend online, when they eat dinner with you, have family home evening and family prayer with you and are close to you emotionally.
"But if your kid is online playing Warcraft 16 hours a day, that emotional and spiritual separation creates a greater level of risk," that they will be targeted by a predator online, he said.
In a recent survey, 48 percent of teens reported that their parents or guardians know "little or nothing about what they do online." About two-thirds of all American teens have profiles on MySpace, Facebook or other social networking sites, and half of those have posted pictures of themselves there.
Knutson said 71 percent of those surveyed have received messages or e-mails from someone they didn't know online. "We're not talking about spam but about someone actually looking to talk specifically with them. Half of them replied to the message or chatted with a perfect stranger."
One in five children will receive a sexual solicitation online in any given year, he said, noting only 25 percent of those told a parent about it and less than 10 percent reported it to authorities.
Predator behavior almost always begins with soft Internet porn, he said, and most predators are adult men. Consumption of pornography turns to hard core, illegal porn and then "from private fantasy into the spaces where children are," he said.
Predators are "social engineers that will groom victims over months or years, and anonymity generally is a must. They're working on multiple kids at the same time. (Predators) can be 100 different people in cyberspace and have ongoing relationships with 30 to 40 kids, sometimes simultaneously."
Because they lack the wisdom that comes with evaluation based on face-to-face contact, children "impose all the positive characteristics they are looking for in a friend on this person they've never met" when they're contacted online.
One of the most frightening developments Knutson is seeing is that, increasingly, victims know the real age of the predator and are willing to meet them. "While kidnapping, rape and murder of children who met a stranger online makes headlines, in the majority of cases, kids who arrange to meet an adult know they're going to meet with them for a sexual relationship," he said.
Predators look for jobs or volunteer posts that place them in proximity to potential victims. They often seek out positions as Cub Scout or Boy Scout leaders, schoolteachers, team coaches, priests or even school crossing guards. "If I had a guy in my ward who was really interested in becoming the Scoutmaster, that's the last job I'd assign him to," Knutson said.
Knutson said parents can learn more about the location of registered sex offenders that live nearby at www.familywatchdog.us a Web site lists every registered sex offender in any geographic area of the United States.Besides being aware of their children's activities and forming strong relationships with them, parents, he said, need to ask themselves "what the risk is of your child having a conversation of any kind with anyone they don't know?"