Every parent wants to protect his or her children from emotional, psychological and physical harm. That's why parents are so disturbed by programs like Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator" and news stories that portray the Internet as a breeding ground for sexual stalkers.
The truth, according to a recent report by David Finkelhor -- director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center -- is that the Internet hasn't created a new kind of child predator. Instead, the Internet has provided a new medium for an old phenomenon: adults looking for underage sexual partners.
The study finds that in the vast majority of "online predator" cases, the adult perpetrator clearly identified himself online as an adult looking for sex with minors [source: Wolak et al]. Most predator crimes are statutory rape, not sexual assault, meaning that sexual relations between the parties involved weren't forced.
This is an uncomfortable subject, but an important distinction, says mother and Daily Beast columnist Lenore Skenazy. Instead of banning a child from using Facebook, for example, parents can focus on teaching their children about healthy relationships [source: Skenazy]. And teachers and authorities can focus on the danger signs -- abuse at home, drug use, isolation from peer groups -- that would lead a young person to engage in risky online behavior.