Popular culture often paints sex offenders as shadowy, trench-coated silhouettes lurking in alleyways and around playgrounds. They’re fundamentally different, we assume, from online predators, who plot terrible crimes against children from behind a computer screen, making them not only dangerous, but hard to catch. One new study has found these two groups are not so dissimilar, and that many of the dangers posed by both groups arise from the people that children encounter most often.

Researchers from the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC) compared 143 cases where sex offenders met underage victims online with 139 cases where offenders knew victims in offline capacities, such as through their schools, families, churches, or neighborhoods. They found that all the offenders used the Internet or a cell phone to communicate with their victim in some capacity. These results highlight the growing concern among parents and law enforcement that sexually preying upon adolescents isn’t a crime easily tackled in one realm or the other.

The research drew from a national sample of law enforcement cases in which offenders were arrested for Internet-related sex crimes. Police investigators provided details about the case, Medical News Today reports.

Although online predators may seem more dangerous, as their identities are often veiled and hard to trace, the study's lead author Janis Wolak said online predators are less of a different breed than people often think.

"These are all serious crimes," said Wolak, who works as a senior researcher at the CACRC. "But the so-called 'online predators' are not more insidious."

Wolak’s study, which she co-authored with professor David Finkelhor, director of the CACRC, found the anonymity of online predators often played little role in the offender’s manipulation. Overwhelmingly, the offenders were male and arrested for statutory rape — nonforcible sexual activity with a minor — and noncontact offenses, such as child pornography production or sexual solicitation of a minor. But in matters of force, abduction, and identity deception, rates of incidence were low.

Wolak advised parents and guardians to avoid classifying sexual offenders and online predators as two different beasts, especially when it comes to educating children. The more important takeaway from the study, she said, was that kids need to learn not to engage an adult in sexual activity or advances.

Often, sexual predators exploit their victims' vulnerability and curiosity by making them feel safe and loved. Dangerous online relationships form between predator and victim when the predator gradually sexualizes the conversation, perhaps sending naked pictures or requesting sexual acts in person. Adolescents who feel like they have no sense of belonging fall victim to these advances often because they feel appreciated.

It’s only after a sense of trust has been built that the predator’s true intentions become apparent. But as predators often lure kids to their homes, that can sometimes be too late.

"We should stop emphasizing the dangers of online strangers,” Wolak said. “We should start teaching children and adolescents to understand and resist sexual advances from adults, whether met online or in-person and whether made through online communications or in-person. That would do more to protect young people.”