‘Trust’ – an Unfortunate Movie About Online Predators

By Nancy Willard

Trust is a story about a young girl who gets involved with an online sexual predator. The movie is a fictionalized account of a true story. Like many “true story” movies, this situation is not typical. Research of actual arrests has documented that these kinds of incidents are very rare.

Unfortunately, the movie has the potential of spinning a significant amount of unwarranted fear about the risks young people face online, as well as ill-advised approaches to “protect” them. Research related to online risks consistently demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of teens make safe choices online and know how to avoid or respond to these kinds of situations.

Poster of the movie, with credits and a catch phrase: What took her family years to build, a stranger stole in an instant. trust_There are two major concerns associated with the Techno-Panic this movie is likely to spawn:

  • This movie could stimulate the distribution of inaccurate fear-based messaging around the risks associated with online predation. Risk prevention professionals know that seeking to transmit fear-based messaging and simplistic rules are ineffective approaches to prevent risk behavior.
  • This movie could generate a significant amount of fear about online sexual predators, which could create barriers to the integration of web 2.0 technologies in schools, which is so important in the transition to 21st century learning.

This article will provide background on Techno-Panic, research-based information on issues related to online sexual exploitation, and some suggestions on how to discuss these issues with students and parents. Information that schools can distribute to parents  and use for student education is also provided.

Accurate Data about Online Predators

Ample evidence demonstrates that young people are at far greater risk of sexual exploitation by family members and acquaintances. Thus, they are at greater risk at home, going to family gatherings, at school, playing on a team, or in a youth religious group than they are online.

The Crimes Against Children Research Center conducted a national analysis that found the arrests for online sexual predation in one year constituted only 1% of all arrests for sex crimes committed against minors – just over 600 arrests. And in a quarter of these cases, there was no actual physical contact because the risk was recognized and reported before such contact.

CACRC found that deception about age and intentions was very rare. Also, very few of these crimes involved any form of violence, stalking, or abduction. There was no evidence that predators were stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on personal contact information, school names, team names, and the like posted online. These were statutory rape situations where the teens, who also engaged in other risk behaviors, met with the adults knowing they were adults and intending to engage in sex. It is important to note that girls are not the only young people at risk. In 16% of the cases, the victim were boys.

The CACRC concluded: “The facts do not suggest that the Internet is facilitating an epidemic of sex crimes against youth.”

Other inaccurate data about online predators is also likely to resurface. On many law enforcement web sites, there are statements related to sexual solicitation of young people, ostensibly by these online predators:

  • National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Web site: “And there is another shocking number: 1 in 7 children are solicited online for sex. Sexual predators are exploiting the Internet to victimize children.”
  • Florida Attorney General’s web site: “Nationally, one in seven children between the ages of ten and 17 have been solicited online by a sexual predator.”

Look at the fear-mongering videos on these Attorney General sites:

  • The Texas Attorney General site. Internet Safety for Parents and the Internet Chase video are examples you should look at.
  • The Nebraska Attorney General site.  Look at the Public Service Announcements.

Note that virtually all of the information that is provided in these materials is inaccurate. As the CACRC has said:

The publicity about online “predators” who prey on naive children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate.  Internet sex crimes involving adults and juveniles more often fit a model of statutory rape – adult offenders who meet, develop relationships with, and openly seduce underage teenagers — than a model of forcible sexual assault or pedophilic child molesting.

CACRC did conduct a study that found that 1 in 7 young people were “sexually solicited” online but not primarily by adult sexual predators. The study asked about the receipt of “unwanted communications of a sexual nature.” Most of these messages came from other teens or young adults.

The teens who received these messages handled them effectively by leaving the site, blocking the communicator, telling the person to stop, and other such actions. A significant majority were not at all upset or frightened. Many teens did not tell anyone about the incident. They rarely told adults. The majority of those who did not report the contact said that the reason they did not report was that it was “no big deal.”

Over the last decade, some Internet safety organizations and individuals have been disseminating fear-based messaging, especially related to risks associated with online predators. This messaging and curriculum contains inaccurate information and simplistic rules against normative digital behavior that has not been demonstrated to be associated with risk — like posting information or photos or communicating with online strangers.

Companies providing free monitoring software may use this movie to try to convince parents their children are at risk and the only way to protect them is to monitor their communications. What these companies tell parents, but only in incomprehensible fine-print, is that their corporate financial model involves market profiling these communications to use for targeted advertising.

Techno-Panic and 21st Century Instruction

This movie could clearly lead to messaging that can interfere with the expansion of the use of interactive technologies that is so important to transform our schools to 21st Century learning environments. The North Carolina Attorney General’s web site has the same video as is shown in Texas. But also materials for schools. Here is a quote from the educator guide. Consider the impact of this information in the context of technology integration:

Just as you might supervise your students when they are learning to drive a car during driver education, you need to guide and monitor your students’ use of the Internet. A child can get into serious trouble sitting in front of a computer screen, right under your nose. The most important thing a teacher can do when working with students who are using computers is to PHYSICALLY MONITOR STUDENTS’ ONLINE ACTIVITY.

Your school’s door may be locked against intruders, but if your computers aren’t properly secured and used safely, they can be an open window to people who seek to exploit and harm young people. They can threaten the safety of the children who have been placed in your care… your students.

Important Lessons

The grooming that is evident in Trust does demonstrate how dangerous individuals may use digital communications to manipulate vulnerable teens. These techniques can be used by strangers or acquaintances, adults or teens. Thus, because it is always possible that a teen may be contacted by someone with dangerous intentions, or may know someone who has, it is important that they understand and recognize the signs that someone may present a risk of harm. Most teens refer to these kinds of people as “creeps.” All teens should recognize the common strategies used by creeps and know basic ways to protect themselves and respond to an inappropriate contact. This insight is provided in the following material, which may be reproduced for school newsletters to parents.

Information to Convey to Parents

On April 1, 2011, a new movie was released about online sexual predators. The movie is a fictionalized account of a true story. Like many “true story” movies, this situation is not typical. Research of actual arrests has documented that these kinds of incidents are extremely rare. Young people are at much higher risk of sexual abuse from family members and acquaintances.

Young people do face risks to their safety and well-being as they grow. The risks from riding a bike are significant. But bike-riding also has many benefits. So we teach young people how to safely ride a bike. There are risks to young people online, as well as substantial benefits. The overwhelming majority of youth already know how to use these new technologies safely and responsibly. But it is necessary to help them learn to recognize when they might be at risk and how they can protect themselves.

Several research studies have demonstrated that young people whose parents are actively and positively involved in their online and off-line lives make safer decisions when using digital technologies and are less distressed by the negative situations that do occur. So the best way to protect your child is by remaining engaged through effective parenting.

The Trust movie also demonstrates the challenges to parents if something negative has happened to their child. Young people often do not tell parents about negative online incidents because they are afraid that their parents will overreact.

It is important that all teens recognize the common strategies used by “creeps,” which is the term most teens appear to apply to these kinds of people. The following are the manipulation strategies used most often by creeps:

  • Overly friendly. What do vulnerable teens crave? Positive attention. What do creeps provide? Positive attention — and lots of it. “Wow, you are hot.” “Hey, you are really cool.” “You are so sexy.” “I am so happy I met you.”
  • Overly eager. Creeps are overly eager to form a relationship. “You are my new ‘best friend.’” “You can trust me and talk about anything.” “I will always be there for you.”
  • One step at a time. Creeps will reward steps that come closer and closer to their objective. “Wow, you are so sexy, send me an even sexier pix.” “Wow, this is really hot. Can you really show me your stuff?”
  • Threaten a loss. Creeps may threaten a loss to encourage other actions. “If you really loved me, you would send me a nude pix.” “If you won’t have sex with me, I will send your nude pix to others.”

The basic protective actions all teens should be encouraged to take online include:

  • Keep it private. Use the privacy protections so that only the people they have accepted as “friends” can see their personal information, photos, and updates.
  • Think before they post. Any information and images posted should present a positive image because this material could be shared with others. Don’t post information or images that could attract the interest of a creep.
  • Connect safely. It is generally safe to interact with strangers on safe public sites. But only “friend” people they know, or a trusted friend knows, in person on their protected profile.
  • Report concerns. If they detect someone may be a creep, report this to a trusted adult or the site.
  • Be a helpful ally. If all teens understand these signs and the potential risks, then they can also be encouraged to recognize when a friend might be at risk, advise that friend what to do, and report to an adult if their friend continues the contact.

Click here for a student handout in PDF format.

3 Responses

  1. When the victims are young people we call these stalkers online predators. Are there laws in Canada to protect children?In2002 Canada enactedlegislation that makes it a criminal offence to use the Internet to lure or exploit children for sexual purposes. Its important to note that this legislation relates to children under the age of consent which in Canada is 14. Section 264 of the Criminal Code defines harassment as a crime both in the real world and on the Internet. This means that any action which causes a person to fear for their safety or the safety of anyone known to them could be considered harassment.

  2. This movie is meant to inform caregivers. It also serves as a very real warning to children about what a predator may look like, online or offline. They may manipulate, they may guilt you into thinking you ‘led THEM on’ (as Charlie does in the original abduction scene at the mall) and they exert just enough control to keep the victim feeling to-blame.

    This is far more common than a rapist hiding in the bushes with a knife. It is usually a ‘trusted’ adult who finds a way into the lives of children to groom, rape, and repeat offend. The reality is unfortunate, but the movie is accurate.

    Statistics based on arrests are grossly unrepresentative of the prevalence of this crime, because, as the movie shows with Charlie’s multiple victims and the open case that has been going on for years, most would be shocked at the number of offenders out there who have not yet done time. Though sickening, it is important to look at the reality of the situation so that something preventative can be done. In my opinion, this movie does an excellent job of depicting this true account without it being graphic and despite having to condense the grooming process into the allotted timeframe.

    Finally, the suggestion that a child can be at fault (“teens who also engaged in other risk behaviors”) is horrendous. Being raped isn’t a ‘behavior.’ Minors are incapable of consenting to sex. Annie is the most innocent among her peers, and that is exactly why she is more at risk.

  3. This movie was 10/10. It really grasped the idea that this does truly happen and even though it could be on your street, take steps to make sure your children are safe! Overall, the movie was great and the acting was fantastic.

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