Pedophiles use Internet chat rooms, news groups and Web sites as a source of discovery and validation, say some psychologists and law enforcement officials.

Technology itself does not create pedophiles. However, the Internet reinforces negative behavior and negative arousal patterns and gives these sex offenders a place to express themselves, says FBI Special Agent Ken Lanning, basing his comments on 20 years of investigative experience and the agency's nationwide investigation of computer-related child pornography and sexual exploitation cases--the Innocent Images National Initiative.

"They convince themselves that they are not evil people," says Lanning of pedophiles. "They are able to interact with groups anonymously and seek support from other people who have the same ideas."

Lanning believes pedophiles may not necessarily commit crimes online--examples of crimes are posting or downloading pornographic pictures of children or luring children to meet them in person--but the Internet provides the ease and anonymity to do so.

"A serious federal felony is now only a few mouse clicks away," Lanning says.

Yet at the same time that the Internet reinforces pedophiles' behavior, it also makes them more visible and traceable. The FBI is able to track these sex offenders from the Web sites, newsgroups and chat rooms they frequent, making it somewhat easier to gather evidence to convict them.

Still, pedophiles persist in using the Internet because it offers the benefits of access, affordability and perceived anonymity, says Alvin Cooper, PhD, of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre. Computers are becoming less expensive and easier to use.

But probably the most attractive feature of the Internet to pedophiles, says Cooper, is its feel of anonymity. The Internet allows them to talk openly about their sex lives, share fantasies and consort with others who share their interests and hide their behavior from society.

The FBI has found that most computer sex offenders are white, professional, upper-middle-class men. They fit no stereotype. They are often doctors and lawyers--successful professionals. They feel comfortable expressing themselves online and would likely be more reclusive if the Internet were not available.

Lanning says, "The sex offender who uses the computer is not a new type of criminal. It's just a matter of modern technology catching up with long-known, well-documented behavioral 'needs.'"

--L. MATTAS CURRY

Further Reading

For more information on the Innocent Images National Initiative, see the FBI Web site at www.fbi.gov. For information on computer-related sex crimes call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at (800) 843-5678. For information on treatment and assessment, please see www.sex-centre.com.