Online offending encompasses a range of crimes, including crimes involving child pornography or other forms of illegal pornography, sexual solicitations of minors, and the use of internet technologies to facilitate sexual assaults, sexual trafficking, or sex tourism (see Seto, 2013). The most commonly prosecuted and clinically identified online crimes, however, involves possession, distribution or production of child pornography (United States Sentencing Commission, 2014). Clinical and research interest in this form of offending has blossomed in the past decade, reflecting the increasing numbers of prosecutions for online sex crimes and clinical referrals.
There is an emerging consensus from research evidence that online offenders are a distinct population from offline offenders who commit contact or non-contact sexual crimes. Babchishin, Hanson and VanZuylen (2015) conducted a meta-analytic review of 30 comparison studies and found that online offenders were less antisocial (as indicated by criminal history, substance use, and personality traits) than contact sex offenders, but were more likely to be pedophilic and to have specific problems with sexual self-regulation. Online offenders also differed by having more psychological barriers to offending, endorsing fewer positive beliefs about sex with children, reporting less emotional identification with children, and greater empathy. Reflecting the role of opportunity in offending, online offenders had more access to the internet, whereas contact offenders had more access to children.
Though there are fewer studies, there is also evidence to support the idea that different types of online offenders are distinct populations as well (Seto et al., 2012). Compared to child pornography offenders, online solicitation offenders had less relationship stability and were less sexually preoccupied. Seto (2013) suggested that child pornography offenders are more likely to be pedophilic than online solicitation offenders, wherein identified child pornography offenders predominantly seek out content depicting prepubescent or pubescent children whereas solicitation offenders predominantly seek out young adolescents.
There is some overlap across different sex offender populations. Seto, Hanson and Babchishin (2011) found that one in eight online offenders (most being child pornography offenders) had an official record for contact sexual offending. In the six studies with self-reported offending information obtained through treatment disclosures and/or polygraph interviews, half of the online offenders admitted having committed contact sexual offenses. Some child pornography offenders have also committed online solicitation offenses, and vice versa, but cumulatively this evidence suggests there are distinct online and offline offender populations.
Reflecting both similarities and differences between online and offline offenders, efforts have been made to translate knowledge from contact offenders to online offenders. In the arena of risk assessment, early work suggested much of what we know about risk factors for sexual recidivism applies. For example, offender age, criminal history, and evidence of pedophilic sexual interests have been shown to predict sexual recidivism among child pornography offenders (Eke, Seto, & Williams, 2011; Faust, Renaud, & Bickart, 2009; Seto & Eke, in press; Wakeling, Howard, & Barnett, 2011). An important predictor is whether child pornography offenders have committed other offenses as well, particularly contact sexual offenses.
For intervention, many practitioners have attempted to adapt contact sex offender programs, for example, creating less intense versions (fewer treatment hours) that emphasize online behavior and sexual self-regulation and de-emphasize generally antisocial attitudes, beliefs and behavior (Beier et al., 2015; Middleton, Mandeville-Norden, & Hayes , 2009). Whether these online offender programs are effective needs to be determined.
Michael C. Seto, Ph.D.
Babchishin, K. M., Hanson, R. K., & Vanzuylen, H. (2015). Online child pornography offenders are different: A meta-analysis of the characteristics of online and offline sex offenders against children. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 45-66.
Beier, K. M., Grundmann, D., Kuhle, L. F., Scherner, G., Konrad, A., & Amelung, T. (2015). The German Dunkelfeld Project: A Pilot Study to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and the Use of Child Abusive Images. The Journal of Sexual Medicine.
Eke, A. W., Seto, M. C., & Williams, J. (2011). Examining the criminal history and future offending of child pornography offenders: An extended prospective follow-up study. Law and Human Behavior, 35, 466-478.
Faust, E., Renaud, C., & Bickart, W. (2009, October). Predictors of re-offence among a sample of federally convicted child pornography offenders. Paper presented at the 28th Annual Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, Dallas, TX.
Middleton, D., Mandeville-Norden, R., & Hayes, E. (2009). Does treatment work with internet sex offenders? Emerging findings from the Internet Sex Offender Treatment Programme (i-SOTP). Journal of Sexual Aggression, 15, 5-19.
Seto, M. C. (2013). Internet sex offenders. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Seto, M. C., & Eke, A. W. (in press). Predicting recidivism among adult male child pornography offender: Development of the Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool (CPORT). Law and Human Behavior.
Seto, M. C., Hanson, R. K., & Babchishin, K. M. (2011). Contact sexual offending by men with online sexual offenses. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 23, 124-145.
Seto, M. C., Wood, J. M., Babchishin, K. M., & Flynn, S. (2012). Online solicitation offenders are different from child pornography offenders and lower risk contact sexual offenders. Law and Human Behavior, 36, 320-330.
United States Sentencing Commission. (2012). Report to the Congress: Federal child pornography offenses. Retrieved April 10, 2015, from http://www.ussc.gov/news/congressional-testimony-and-reports/sex-offense-topics/report-congress-federal-child-pornography-offenses
Wakeling, H. C., Howard, P., & Barnett, G. (2011). Comparing the validity of the RM2000 scales and OGRS3 for predicting recidivism by Internet sexual offenders. Sexual abuse: a journal of research and treatment, 23, 146-168.