Study shows how the language of sexual predators in chatrooms differ

Sarah Seraj

Sex offenders tend to use more “other-oriented” language in online chatrooms to focus attention on their child target rather than on themselves, a UT study finds.

The study, which was published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking earlier this year, analyzed 561 chat transcripts from convicted sex offenders and decoys, or undercover agents posing as minors. It found that sex offenders used significantly fewer first-person sinuglar pronouns, such as ‘I,’ ‘me’ and ‘my,’ and more second-person singular pronouns, such as ‘you’ and ‘your,’ compared to the decoys.

Pronouns were a focus of this work because they are function words, said Maxim Baryshevtsev, graduate research assistant in the Moody College of Communication and researcher in the study. Function words form grammatical relationships with other words in a sentence but are not tied to content. They comprise about 60 to 70 percent of the language people use, while content words form the rest.

“Function words are used outside of our awareness,” Baryshevtsev said. “We can control content when we talk about things, but function words are a lot harder (to control) and so they should be a better reflection of our psychological mechanisms when we converse with people.”

There are two possible explanations for the difference in pronoun usage in sex offenders, said Baryshevtsev. The first is that the predators are trying to psychologically distance themselves from what they know to be an illegal act, the act of sexually soliciting minors, by using fewer first-person pronouns. Moreover, they are using more second-person pronouns to focus on their target, build friendship and groom them for sexual contact.

The second explanation is that pronoun usage is tied to social dominance or clout. People who have higher status or authoritative positions use fewer first-person pronouns and more second-person pronouns, said Baryshevtsev. It is possible that the sexual predators are exhibiting this dominance toward their target.

The social dominance explanation is supported by results from a previous study by Michelle Drouin, psychology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. This study found that sex offenders had relatively higher clout compared to decoys, Drouin said.

Drouin, who also serves as an expert court witness for sexting, social media and online relationship cases, said that it’s particularly important for decoys to have low clout to avoid leading or tricking a potential sexual predator into committing an offence, a phenomenon known as entrapment.

Decoys help law enforcement capture sexual predators by posing as minors in chat rooms. Since chat transcripts from these undercover operations are often used as the basis for convictions in the courtroom, it is imperative that the decoys do not entrap a suspected predator into committing an offense by initiating or leading a conversation, Drouin said.

Linguistic analysis will become more important in the courtroom as digital evidence, such as chat transcripts, become more prevalent.

“We all have different lenses based on experiences, our beliefs and our values,” Drouin said. “When we look at these chat transcripts, we might get very fixated on certain terms based on our personal values. (Linguistic analysis) takes away the subjectivity and gives an objective analysis of the language that exists.”

The UT online sexual predation study will potentially expand to explore how predator language changes with time over the course of the interaction with the child target, said Matthew McGlone, UT communications studies professor and researcher in the study.

“When one of these predators goes into the chatroom, they’re not going to lead by talking about sex, but they will gradually become more explicit,” McGlone said. “Before they do that, of course, they have to get the person’s trust. (We are) really interested in the time course in which they become more explicit in their attentions.”