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Vlog Theories CO:RE at LSE Published: 16 Nov 2020

David Finkelhor on using evidence to disarm alarmist misconceptions about child online victimisation

In this vlog, David Finkelhor talks about his work, the ideas that inspire him, and how we should develop our current thinking related to children’s internet use.

Slightly starstruck, I get ready for the interview with David Finkelhor, a Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire who needs no introduction to anyone working in the field of child online victimisation. David’s work has been so influential in his field that I am curious to hear who has influenced his own thinking and how his ideas developed over time.

We kick off with an introduction and David gets straight to the point talking about the area where many of his efforts and much of his passion have concentrated over the years – his goal to disarm alarmist misconceptions about child online victimisation with high-quality research evidence. The theorist in him comes to the fore effortlessly as David takes me through the debates between communication studies and criminology and his own theoretical contributions related to concepts such as "the motivated offender" and "aggravated vs experimental sexting". "I think of theory as kind of a flashlight”, he says.

It helps you to search for the variables and factors that should be utilised in trying to explain something that you find interesting or important or problematic. You can also differentiate between theories which tend to privilege one or a small set of factors – like behaviourism… versus something that I call conceptual frameworks which put the flashlight on whole domains of variables that should be considered.

Admitting that he is most comfortable with conceptual frameworks, David makes these come to life by talking me through his thinking around crime victimisation. "You should look for the presence of a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of capable guardians", he suggests. In this way he clarifies not only crime victimisation but also his quizzical mind and ability to methodologically interrogate issues that most shy away from as "too sensitive".

For the remainder of the interview we talk about problematic concepts and how we could develop better theories, while David shares what inspires him about the work that he does. I feel my own enthusiasm about the contribution of research evidence to a safer and more beneficial online environment for children grow – something that I have experienced during my previous meetings with David who motivates with his calm and positive certainty. We wrap up as he reminds me of the need to remain humble and to constantly interrogate ourselves and our thinking for alarmist bias which has infused much of the discussions of the role of internet technology.

There's a whole alarmist narrative about how the technology has made children more vulnerable to victimisation and has exacerbated the negative effects because you can't get away from it. I think this is tremendously oversimplified.

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Video: CO:RE theories vlog series - an interview with David Finkelhor.
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Podcast: series "theory calling" with David Finkelhor.


Professor David Finkelhor is Director of the Crimes against Children Research Center, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory, professor of Sociology and university professor at the University of New Hampshire, USA. His core fields of interest have been the problems of child victimisation, child maltreatment and family violence, which he has been studying since 1977. He is best known for his conceptual and empirical work on the problem of child sexual abuse, reflected in publications such as his Sourcebook on child sexual abuse (1986, Sage) and Nursery crimes (1988, Sage). He has done extensive research on child homicide, missing and abducted children, and children exposed to domestic and peer abuse. In his book, Childhood victimization (2008), he has sought to unify and integrate knowledge about all the diverse forms of child victimisation in a field he has termed ‘Developmental Victimology’.

Further reading

Finkelhor, D & Asdigian, N (1996)  “Risk factors for youth victimization: Beyond a lifestyles theoretical approach”. Violence and Victims, 11(1): 3-20.

Finkelhor, D (2008) Childhood Victimization: Violence, Crime, and Abuse in the Lives of Young People. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Team member, CO:RE at LSE

Mariya Stoilova

Mariya Stoilova is a post-doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) working on children’s rights, online risks and opportunities, and well-being. She is member of the CO:RE work package 5 on theory.

London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

The team at the LSE works on theory, providing a series of mutually cross-fertilising mechanisms to coordinate and support the theoretical dimension of research. The team identifies valuable theoretical concepts that offer multidisciplinary breadth and depth in understanding the long-term impact of digital media on children and youth, and coallates all in a comprehensive theories toolkit that provides guidance throughout the theory pathway, from (research) question to generating theory.

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