Shevaun and the scaremongers

How the elopement of a 12-year-old girl became a morality tale about the dangers of the internet.

Sandy Starr

Topics Science & Tech

It is a sure sign that the summer ‘silly season’ is underway, when the elopement of a schoolgirl with an older man can make frontpage news for several days running. But the story of 12-year-old UK schoolgirl Shevaun Pennington – who, for five days in July, went on the run in Europe with 31-year-old US ex-marine Toby Studabaker (1) – had an extra ingredient that allowed it to be blown out of proportion: the internet.

Initially, reports of Shevaun’s disappearance simply mentioned in passing that she and Studabaker ‘met over the internet’ or ‘had been in contact for some time via email and letter’ (2). But once it transpired that the pair had been corresponding on the internet for over a year, the internet rapidly became the villain of the piece.

The incident was treated as a morality tale, about the grave danger that the internet poses to children. We were told how Shevaun’s parents naively let her use the computer in their kitchen to access the internet for between five and 11 hours a day, unaware of whom she was chatting to. Reports invariably mentioned that the event had rekindled concerns about ‘grooming’ – the term used by the UK authorities to describe a paedophile’s online communication with a child, with a view to meeting that child and molesting them.

Shevaun’s disappearance coincided with the second reading of the Sexual Offences Bill, which proposes to make grooming into a specific crime – and the UK government was quick to exploit this. Home secretary David Blunkett expressed sympathy for Shevaun’s parents in the House of Commons, and argued that when tackling online paedophiles ‘we should step up joint international action. This case provides an opportunity for people to put into practice their words and intentions’ (3).

It’s fair enough to say that Shevaun’s parents could have kept a closer eye on the amount of time she spent online, and who she chatted to. But since when does a schoolgirl’s elopement call for international initiatives and sweeping new laws? Girls have been running away from home with older men since long before the internet existed.

BBC technology correspondent Bill Thompson called for children to be banned outright from chatrooms. Thompson argued bizarrely that ‘Shevaun’s disappearance was the net’s fault and we have to accept this’ (4). Several individuals were involved in this affair, but whomever was at ‘fault’, it certainly wasn’t the technical means they used to communicate with one another.

The media struggled to paint Shevaun’s disappearance in as sinister tones as possible. Her calls to her parents, to assure them that she was perfectly well and not under any duress, didn’t help. Nor did Studabaker’s apparent willingness to give himself up to the authorities. Debate raged as to whether or not Shevaun and Studabaker had been aware of one anothers’ true ages.

When child pornography was discovered on Studabaker’s home computer, and allegations emerged that he had groped his niece, the media breathed a collective sigh of relief – at last, the monster stood revealed.

But even assuming that Studabaker was a malicious paedophile, where is the evidence that children are generally susceptible to such online solicitations? A 12-year-old pupil at Shevaun’s school told BBC News that ‘most of his friends were aware of the potential dangers of paedophiles disguising themselves as children on the web, and did their best to check people’s identities’ (5).

In the Guardian, Andrew Brown noted that ‘where once street gangs might shun particular houses because old women lived there, who might be witches, now they shun, online, anyone who might be “a paedo”’. Scrabbling for another horror story to rank alongside Shevaun’s, the Sunday Telegraph could only dredge up the case of Amy Singleton – who once eloped with a 16-year-old she met in a chatroom, and came to no harm (6).

One person who is especially keen to demonstrate the threat posed by online paedophiles is Rachel O’Connell, director of the cyberspace research unit at the University of Central Lancashire – who happened to publish her alarming research paper A Typology of Child Cybersexploitation and Online Grooming Practices the day after Shevaun returned to her parents.

O’Connell wrote the paper after five years spent masquerading as children aged between eight and 12 in chatrooms, typically pretending ‘that she had moved to a new location, her parents were constantly fighting, and that she had not yet made friends with peers in her new school’ – vulnerable attributes calculated to attract paedophiles. In her paper, she breaks down five stages in an online paedophile’s relationship with a child: ‘friendship forming’, ‘relationship forming’, ‘risk assessment’, ‘exclusivity’ and ‘sexual’.

This typology conjures up an inexorable path from a child encountering a paedophile in a chatroom to a child being abused. But physical child abuse is a world away from online communication between a child and a suspected paedophile. By lumping all these activities together under the heading ‘cybersexploitation’ – ‘a term coined by the author to describe varying degrees of online sexual exploitation of children’ – O’Connell actually makes a sober assessment of the real threat posed by paedophiles more difficult.

Other unhelpful terms used by O’Connell include ‘cybersex’, ‘which may involve descriptions of anything from mutual masturbation, oral sex or virtual penetrative sex’. The words ‘descriptions’ and ‘virtual’ should be emphasised – no physical abuse of a child is taking place. In an interview in the Guardian, O’Connell went further and used the term ‘cyber-rape’, leading that newspaper to report that ‘children are increasingly being targeted by “cyber-rapists” who coerce them into aggressive and abusive sexual encounters in internet chatrooms’ (7).

Of course, the sexual abuse of children by people they meet online is horrifying and criminal. Fortunately, such occurrences are rare – in spite of the UK government’s obsessive attempts to talk them up (see Are you the one in four?). But children having upsetting conversations with suspicious adults on the internet is a different affair. Parents could help their children to be more sussed about dealing with these kinds of incidents.

‘At present’, says O’Connell, ‘it is only possible to hypothesise about the possible psychological impact of these kinds of experiences on vulnerable children’ (8). Surely, then, there are no grounds for either a panic or new legislation. It is all very well (if somewhat sick) for O’Connell to pose as a child and go around deliberately baiting paedophiles, so that she can report on the shocking responses she elicits, but this experiment is hardly a good basis for policy.

Shevaun Pennington’s five-day disappearance gave undeserved credibility to scaremongers, who make a habit of mischaraterising unknown quantities as sinister, and who conflate real physical harm with unquantified psychological harm. Making a criminal offence of ‘grooming’ blurs the distinction between thinking about sexual acts and committing them, between thoughts and actions. When an adult can potentially be criminalised for having sexual fantasises about a child and arranging to meet them, without having acted on such fantasies, how far are we from creating thought crimes?

Rather than inventing new legislation, it would be better if the debate was taken out of the virtual world of ‘cybersexploitation’ – and put back into the real one.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

We scare because we care, by Sandy Starr

Blunkett under the blanket, by Josie Appleton

(1) See Timeline: search for schoolgirl, BBC News, 16 July 2003

(2) Missing 12-year-old fled to France with US marine, Ananova, 14 July 2003; Police seek ex-marine, 12-yr-old girl he met online, Reuters, 14 July 2003

(3) Sexual Offences Bill, second reading, David Blunkett, House of Commons, 15 July 2003

(4) Ban teens from chatrooms, Bill Thompson, BBC News, 18 July 2003

(5) Lure of the chatroom, 17 July 2003

(6) A worm’s eye view, Andrew Brown, Guardian, 17 July 2003; The monsters in the corner, Jenny Booth and Jenny McCartney, Sunday Telegraph, 20 July 2003

(7) A Typology of Child Cybersexploitation and Online Grooming Practices (.pdf 161 KB), Rachel O’Connell, Cyberspace Research Unit, University of Central Lancashire, 17 July 2003, p5, 2, 11
; ‘Cyber-rapists’ target children, David Batty, Guardian, 17 July 2003

(8) A Typology of Child Cybersexploitation and Online Grooming Practices (.pdf 161 KB), Rachel O’Connell, Cyberspace Research Unit, University of Central Lancashire, 17 July 2003, p5, 2, 13

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Topics Science & Tech


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