Risk Behaviors

Risk behaviors include any behaviors that put individuals in danger of being taken advantage of, or becoming subject to online predators. It is important for students to be aware of the risks they are taking, as many students with cognitive disabilities may not understand that what they are doing could put them in harm’s way.

The following is a list of risk behaviors that have been found to be predominant among students, especially early adolescent students (Dowell, Burgess, Cavanaugh, 2009):

  • Posting personal information (full name, birthdates, address, school, email address, instant messaging address, phone number, etc.)
  • Posting a profile picture
  • Posting suggestive pictures of themselves or friends
  • Posting evidence of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use
  • Not setting online profiles to private
  • Corresponding with strangers
  • Inflating one’s age
  • Using inappropriate websites
  • Cyberbullying
  • Using swear words on profile or in comments

While posting a piece of personal information or a picture on an online profile may not in and of itself put a student in a dangerous situation, engaging in a numerous amount of these risks behaviors can put students in jeopardy and make them vulnerable (Dowell, Burgess, Cavanaugh, 2009). Students with cognitive disabilities are not necessarily more likely to engage in risk behaviors, however they are more likely to not understand the repercussions of the behaviors. By not educating your student on the dangers of these behaviors we are not fully preparing them to be safe social networkers.

Sexual Predators

The media often portrays sexual predators as people who use trickery and violence to prey on children, this may be exaggerated and somewhat inaccurate (Dowell, Burgess, & Cavanaugh, 2009). On the contrary, many adolescents are not tricked into sexual acts. More often they have met and developed a relationship with an adult and knowingly are seduced (Dowell, Burgess, & Cavanaugh, 2009). Students with cognitive disabilities are more likely to be vulnerable to being taken advantage of by sexual predators.

Predators often use techniques termed as “grooming”; which is the process of showing care and concern for a teenager in order to gain their trust (Marcum, 2007). Predators may not give personal information about themselves to children. They also may manipulate teens into thinking that they are being given a choice to have sex (Marcum, 2007). The following excerpt is an example of an online predator using “grooming” techniques:

Courtneyd132004: cn we talk on the fone first
Flamningdonkeybutt: sure tomorrow
Courtneyd132004: wats ur #
Flamningdonkeybutt: ###-####
Flamingdonkeybutt: good night baby
Courtneyd132004: im afraid 2 give it
Flamningdonkeybutt: don’t be afraid
Flamingdonkeybutt: I wont do anything u don’t want me to
Flamningdonkeybutt: I really want to see u at ur house hon, so we can do things
Flamningdonkeybutt: you want to right?
Courtneyd132004: if u want to
Flamningdonkeybutt: court. I ned to know that u do- u have to tell me
Courtneyd132004: y u need to kno
Flamningdonkeybutt: bcus if u dnt wnt to it wuld be rape…u dnt wnt me to go to jail do u?
Courtneyd132004: no no…I do wnt to

This chat log example was taken from a Perverted Justice Study (Marcum, 2007). Perverted Justice, or “PeeJ,” is a civilian watch group that is dedicated to exposing adult predators searching for children in chat rooms with the goal of finding common traits of internet sexual predators (Marcum, 2007). This conversation shows how predators will use these techniques and manipulate words to talk children into sexual acts through building their trust and by convincing them it is their personal choice.

Other behaviors of sexual predators may include:

  • Declaring love, marriage, and compassion to gain trust
  • Manipulation using words
  • Manipulation using pornographic images
  • Fulfilling a need for power and control
  • Deviant sexual behaviors and attitudes (Davidson and Martellozzo, 2008)

Since students with cognitive disabilities may be less likely to pick up on clues and warning signs of a possible predator situation, it is pertinent for teachers and parents to teach their students about what to look for when social networking on the internet using specific examples of words/phrases and role playing.


Online stalking is a serious safety concern for all  teenagers including teens with cognitive disabilities. Information that students post online is very public. It can be seen, shared, and edited by a number of people (McCleese & McCleese, 2010). Stalkers can easily access this information and use it to stalk their victims. Online stalking often leads to, or is accompanied by physical (off-line) stalking (Baughman, 2010).

Online stalking is often referred to as “cyberstalking.” Cyberstalking may include any of the following (Baughman, 2010):

  • Monitoring email communication either directly or through spyware or keystroke logging hardware
  • Sending emails that threaten, insult, or harass
  • Flooding an email box with unwanted email or a virus with the intention of disrupting communication
  • Using the Internet to seek and compile personal information and whereabouts.

Sexual Harassment

Online sexual harassment is an issue for all teenagers including teens with cognitive disabilities. Research has shown that adolescents often have a false sense of anonymity (Patchin & Hinduja, 2010)(McCleese and McCleese, 2010)(Bauman & Tatum, 2009). Students often believe that it is difficult or hard for someone to find out who they are based on the information posted online. However, this is not always the case. Many times it is easy to find out who someone really is by doing some investigation.

This false sense of anonymity can lead students to posting information and content they may not otherwise post. Students also often feel more mature in online settings and may engage in sexual discussions (Marcum, 2007). They start with a false sense of anonymity, which makes them feel secure. However, “during conversations children begin to trust their adult online companions, and reveal an extensive amount of information including their location, age, and activities of interest” (Marcum, 2007, p. 102). This trust puts them at danger for being harassed and abused.

Durkin (2007) suggested there are four ways adults with sexual interest in children use the Internet:

  • trafficking of child pornography
  • location of molestation victims
  • communication with other pedophiles
  • engagement of inappropriate sexual communication with children (as cited in Marcum, 2007).

In addition, adult sex offenders often use the construction of sites for the exchange of information, experiences, and indecent images of children, the organization of criminal activities that seek to use children for prostitution purposes and that produce indecent images of children at a professional level, the organization of criminal activities that promote sexual tourism, and grooming children for the purposes of sexual abuse (Davidson & Martellozzo, 2008). Sex offenders “perceive the Internet as a means of generating an immediate solution to their fantasies” (Davidson & Martellozzo, 2008, p. 278).

Sexual harassment often comes in the form of explicit pictures. A report on the Nation’s Youth (2004) showed that 1 in 4 children on the internet had an unwanted exposure to sexually explicit pictures (as cited in Davidson & Martellozo, 2008). Another study showed that students are at risk for being pressured to send and post sexual photos of themselves (McCleese &McCleese, 2010). These pictures can easily be sent to others or used as blackmail and for other harassment, both by online predators and by people the student knows personally (McCleese & McCleese, 2010). It is important to discuss with you students the ways in which they can be exploited on the internet.


Baughman, L.L. (2010). Friend request of foe? Confirming the misuse of internet and social networking sites by domestic violence perpetrators. Widener Law Journal, 19(3), 933-966.

Bauman, S. & Tatum, T. (2009). Web sites for young children: Gateway to online social networking. Professional School Counseling, 13(1), 1-7.

Davidson, J. C., and Martellozzo, E. (2008). Protecting vulnerable young people in cyberspace from sexual abuse: raising awareness and responding globally. Police Practice and Research, 9(4) 277-289.

Dowell, E. B., Burgess, A.W., & Cavanaugh, D.J. (2009). Clustering of Internet risk behaviors in a middle school student population. Journal of School Health, 79(11), 547-553.

Durkin, K. (1997). Misuse of the Internet by pedophiles: Implication for law enforcement and probation practice. Federal Probation, 61, 14-18.

Marcum, C. D. (2007). Interpreting the Intentions of Internet Predators: An Examination of Online Predatory Behavior. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 16(4), 99-114.

McCleese, J. & McCleese, S. (2010). Seeking Balance. Independent School, 69(4), 50-58.

Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2010) Trends in online social networking: adolescent use of MySpace over time. New Media Society, 12 (2)197-216.


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