Advancements in communication technologies have aroused concerns that the ‘borderless’ world of the Internet is not only facilitating, but also masking, a ‘new’ form of child sexual abuse. For official bodies, policy makers and the mass media, this ‘threat’, typically framed in terms of ‘online predators’ or ‘Internet paedophiles’, represents a considerable social problem. My research undertakes a cross-cultural analysis of how this social problem has been constructed and understood in the UK, US, Canada and Australia – the four English-speaking nations that form the Virtual Global Taskforce.
Despite prominent feminist critiques highlighting how the majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by ‘normal’ men that are known to and trusted by the victim, popular and ‘official’ discourses continue to frame the issue through the concept of the ‘paedophile’, a problematic framework which locates danger within an ‘other’ figure and positions the problem within a discourse of ‘stranger danger’ (Kelly 1996; Kitzinger 1999, 2003). ‘Online predators’, then, can be seen as the ultimate form of ‘stranger danger’, given that the ‘threat’ they pose is ‘invisible’ and can easily transcend physical, geographical and cultural boundaries. In the contemporary political climate, this ‘threat’ has become an increasingly important issue for policy makers. The British government has created the Child Exploitation Online Protection (CEOP) Centre, the US government has developed Operation Predator and the Australian government has pumped in excess of $100m into NetAlert. Together with Interpol, these, and similar government-supported bodies in Canada (NCECC) and Italy, form the Virtual Global Taskforce.
As the terms ‘online predator’ and ‘Internet paedophile’ suggest, the root of the perceived ‘threat’ is situated within two sites: the technology; and the ‘(ab)user’ of the technology. Given the proliferation of web-based technology, interest in the scale and intensity of this ‘threat’ – both in terms of ‘risks’ and the development of high-tech safeguards – will only increase. The principle objective of my study, therefore, is to gain a detailed academic understanding of how this ‘threat’ (and the corresponding debates about what countermeasures could/should be taken) has been: (a) framed by official bodies, policy makers and the mass media; and (b) understood by the public.
Data sources include: educational materials from official bodies and policy makers; newspaper coverage from each country; ‘investigative’ television news coverage from each country; and online discussions about major news stories, as published on the newspapers’ Internet pages. These data sources will be analysed using critical discourse analysis and content analysis. In addition to this, interviews will be carried out with key players from each country.
Proposed research questions include: How has the new social problem of ‘online predators’ been framed and how has awareness been raised? How have the principal protagonists – perpetrators, victims, parents, policy makers – and the role/impact of the new technology been constructed? How is the problem framed and understood across different cultures? How are technological countermeasures framed as a ‘solution’ to the problem?
My principle research interest is in media representations of child sexual abuse and my thesis builds upon work undertaken on taught undergraduate and postgraduate programmes at JOMEC. My BA dissertation used case studies of Gary Glitter and Michael Jackson to examine how theNews of the World, a tabloid newspaper with a long history of campaigning around ‘paedophilia’ and ‘stranger danger’, constructed the ‘celebrity paedophile’. My MA dissertation examined coverage of the so-called ‘Lesbian tennis coach trial’ to explore how issues of gender and sexuality played out in the UK press’s coverage of a rare case of female-perpetrated child sexual abuse. Both of these dissertations were supervised by Professor Kitzinger and achieved marks of 86 and 80 respectively.
Supervisor: Professor Jenny Kitzinger
Autumn 2008: Doing Media Research: Approaches and Methods (Dr Claire Wardle)
Spring 2009: Media, Power and Society (Ms Kerry Moore)
2004-2007: BA Journalism, Film and Media, Cardiff University. Class: First.
2007-2008: MA Journalism Studies, Cardiff University. Class: Distinction.
2008-2011: AHRC Doctoral Competition (Full award)