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My first introduction to Internet safety was the story of Alicia Kozakiewicz, the girl who was abducted by an Internet predator and underwent unspeakable horrors while held in his basement for four days. (read her story here.)

Though Alicia’s story is a clear-cut warning about meeting online strangers, the topic of online predators is probably the most confusing area of all for parents that are looking to protect their kids. Just how much of a threat predators pose to children continues to be a matter of debate due to differing opinions from Internet safety experts and law enforcement.

Larry Magid, a well-known and respected Internet safety author and expert, recently called concern over online predators “panic” and was glad that the panic had largely gone away in recent years. He goes on to write:

Safety experts and law enforcement studies from the Crimes Against Children Research Center and elsewhere show that, statistically, the odds of a prepubescent child being sexually molested by an online stranger is virtually zero and the odds of it happening to a teenager are very low, especially when compared with children who are harmed by family members and others they know from the real world.

Right after reading this I ran across this news item, detailing a horrific tale of another girl, 16 years old, who was tied up and raped by a man she met online. Just today I ran across a story of a 13-year-old girl who was about to board a bus to meet a man she met playing the online game World of Warcraft. Luckily police got to her in time.

Furthermore, the study that Magid is referring to actually shows a 402% increase in the arrest of online predators from 2000 to 2006, so there is clear statistical and case-by-case evidence that the problem not only exists, but is actually getting worse. However, the same study shows that of teens that were solicited over the Internet, only 4% of those encounters actually resulted in an abduction.

So parents are left to choose what to believe: Internet safety experts who use words like “panic” and “hysteria” to describe concern about predators, and the numerous, documented cases throughout the U.S. of sexual criminals using the Internet to snare children.

While the “odds” may be low regarding online abductions of teens, using that argument is obscuring the issue for most parents who are much more concerned about what could happen to their child rather than statistics regarding what happens to the entire U.S. population. However, most researchers who cover the topic are trained to think and speak in terms of large populations and aggregate numbers, so the disconnect exists.

It is incumbent on Internet safety organizations to present a clear picture to parents of what the real risk is regarding predators, without using language that exaggerates or downplays the threat. Parents need to know not only dangers regarding worst-case scenarios involving abduction and rape, but also much more likely scenarios such as their child receiving sexual messages from a stranger that may disturb the child, or even being coerced into trading pictures that could then be used to blackmail the child into further sexual actions.