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Digital Sticks and Stones
By Art Bowker, Cybercrime Specialist
Published: 04/04/2011


Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month are in April. Additionally, April 10-16, 2011 is National Crime Victims Rights Week. What do these events have to do with cyberspace? I mean, cyberspace isn’t real right? No one gets harmed by 1′s and 0′s. Sure there are hackers and virus writers that harm or steal data but that has nothing to do with this month’s “real victims.” Oh contraire mon amie! Let me show you how what happens in cyberspace can have real world consequences.

Child Porn

One of the things that really fries my grits is the comment by some that child porn is just “dirty pictures” and the offenders who posses digital images are somehow removed from the victimization process because they didn’t produce the images. I somethings also hear the comment that these images mainly involve 16-17 year olds or are almost 18 years old, and it is “borderline illegal.” Moose hockey!

According to to National Center for Missing and Exploited Children the content of these illegal images “varies from exposure of genitalia to graphic sexual abuse, such as penetration by objects, anal penetration, and bestiality.” Additionally, of the “child pornography victims identified by law enforcement, 42% appear to be pubescent, 52% appear to be prepubescent, and 6% appear to be infants or toddlers.”

Beyond the creation trauma, what kind of harm are we talking about with these images? Digital images don’t degrade over time. Electronic media is the closest thing mankind has come to creating something that is permanent. These images can be traded hundreds and thousands of times and the look of fear, shock, and trauma on the victim’s face is just as fresh as the day it was taken. The images, transmitted all over the world, can’t just be deleted or recalled. They are viewed by all manner of sex offender, from the dabbler (curious offender) to the hard core preferential offender. They are even used by some offenders to entice new children. The children in these pictures are repeatedly victimized a little bit more each time these images are viewed, traded, and distributed. The phrase “dirty pictures”, sometimes used by offenders, attorney, and even judges, to describe these images minimizes the harm done to these children. It is like equating a tsunami with the splash one creates in a mud puddle.

Some federal courts are wrestling with putting a dollar figure for restitution orders in convictions involving child pornography possession. If these restitution orders stand, maybe, just maybe, potential offenders will realize that possessing images of a children being brutalized can have a negative financial impact on them. It is a small measure of comfort to the victims in these images.

Internet Harassment

Approximately 3.4 million people are stalked annually and 1 in 4 victims reported the offense included a cyberstalking act. (Baum, Catalano, and Rand, 2009) Additionally, law enforcement estimates that electronic communications are a factor in 20% to 40% of all stalking cases. So the lines between on-line and off-line stalking frequently overlap. The effects of cyberstalking and more recently cyberbullying are starting to be viewed as more than just a cyberspace event. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, cyberstalking victims … “often psychological trauma, as well as physical and emotional reactions as a result of their victimization. Some of these effects may include: changes in sleeping and eating patterns; nightmares; hypervigilance; anxiety; helplessness; fear for safety; shock and disbelief.”

Hinduja and Patchin found … “that experience with traditional bullying and cyberbullying is associated with an increase in suicidal ideation among our sample, and that both seem to be related to the outcome measure in similar ways.” They further note that the data does not support a cause and effect type relation, but that these experiences with bullying and cyberbullying may tend … “to exacerbate instability and hopelessness in the minds of adolescents already struggling with stressful life circumstances.”


I hope that during the upcoming month we realize that a crime, regardless of whether it occurs online or off-line, profoundly and negatively effects victims. We should not paint with broad minimization strokes simply because the crime occurred in the digital age. Those “1′s and 0′s” can sometimes be as harmful as “sticks and stones.”


1999 Report on Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry, a Report from the Attorney General to the Vice President, August 1999

Baum, Katrina; Catalano, Shannan; and Rand, Michael, (2009). Stalking Victimization in the United States. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

Hinduja, Sameer and Patchin, Justin W. ‘Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide’, Archives of Suicide Research, 14:3, 206 – 221

Lozano, Juan, “Legal experts: Ruling benefits child porn victims” Associated Press, March 25, 2011

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Child Pornography Fact Sheet

The National Center for Victims of Crime, Cyberstalking

Visit "The Three C's (Computers, Crime & Corrections)" blog by Art Bowker

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