Never in history have sexual predators been given such an opportunity to communicate so freely and directly with children. The Internet and new avenues such as social networking (e.g. Facebook, MySpace), chat rooms, email, instant messaging, and forums provide a dangerous medium for predators to conduct their conquests. A recent study estimates that 1 in 5 children between the ages of 10 and 7 have been sexually solicited online and anyone who watches the news has heard examples of these predators luring children offline and sexually assaulting or even murdering their victims.
Online stalking, or “cyberstalking” is a criminal offense. The stalkers are called “online predators” and they take advantage of the anonymity of the Internet and the naivety of children to drive their efforts to seduce them. As any adult knows, children are inexperienced and can be naive and being anonymous on the Internet tends to make children even more open and trustworthy. In addition, children tend to be curious about sexuality and sexually explicit material. During a period of life when children begin to build relationships outside of the their families, predators take advantage of the anonymity to build relationships with the inexperienced youth.
So what do we know about the characteristics of an online predator or cyberstalker? Firstly, they are almost always male. They tend to be introverted and almost always operate in isolation. Most are sadistic and sexually indiscriminate too.
What type of child is at risk?
All children are at risk but the ones most at risk tend to possess a few unique characteristics themselves. Many are new online and unfamiliar with the Internet. Most are online seeking attention and affection. They also tend to be rebellious and isolated or lonely (and since online predators are typically isolated too the child can relate well to them). These children may tend to gravitate towards subcultures outside of what their parents have taught them. Children most at risk tend to be curious and or confused regarding their sexual identity too and are easily tricked or manipulated by adults.
How do online predators find their victims?
Online predators find their victims through social networks, blogs, chat rooms, instant messaging, e-mail, discussion boards, online video games, and other web sites. They will offer the child attention, affection, kindness, caring, and even gifts. Some predators will devote considerable time and money to their efforts. They will ensure they understand the child’s world and will know the latest music, hobbies, fads, and other things that interest kids. They will listen to and sympathize with kid’s problems (which is all the worst if the child is in a family where the parents are not in attune with the child’s concerns).
Giving a workable environment, online predators will get to know the child and then slowly ease the young person’s inhibitions by gradually introducing sexual content into their conversations. In some cases though, the predators use a “shotgun” approach and quickly introduce sexually explicit materials to see if the victim bites (and if not, they will quickly move to the next prey). In many cases, the predator will work towards meeting the child in person and will use the preliminary contacts to evaluate the child for future face-to-face contact.
Signs to look for
There are warning signs you can look for. Note if your child spends large amounts of time on the computer, especially late at night and particularly if they are in chat rooms.
You may find pornography on your child’s computer. Children may hide pornography on diskettes, CDs, usb drives, or in folders and directories you would not expect to find them in. Pay particular attention to virus scans which although do not detect porn, do detect viruses that often accompany it.
The child may receive phone calls from people you do not recognize. Long distance calls to or from your child’s phone should send up red flags immediately. If the child has imitated phone contact with the predator then the situation has already reach a dangerous level and indicates the predator is moving to the next phase – setting up a face-to-face meeting with the child. If the child will not give out their phone number, the predator will often give out their own phone number. Some have even been known to obtain and use toll-free numbers specifically for this purpose (a toll free number is used in hopes that the parent will not pay attention to a 1-800 number on their phone bill). Some will even call the child collect. And of course, once the child calls the predator they will retrieve their phone number via caller id.
Also note if the child receives unexpected gifts, sometimes expensive ones. Some predators have even sent plane tickets in an attempt to lure the child across the country (e.g. “when you get mad at your parents, use these tickets to get to me and I will take care of you”).
Another warning sign is a child who has suddenly become withdrawn from the family or friends. Online predators will use their abilities to divide a child from his family. They will often exaggerate minor problems at home to make them seem much worse to the child and then sympathize with the child. In addition, sexually abused kids will often become withdrawn or depressed.
Other signs to look for is a child that quickly turns off the computer screen when you enter the room, a child that is vague when you ask them what they are doing online, or a child that is using someone else’s online account (predators have been known to provide a child with a computer account so they can communicate with them).
What parents can do
There are several things parents can do to prevent online predators from successfully luring your child in. Parents should first talk to their children about online sexual predators and how they work. You can install parental control software on their computer. You should also ensure your children follow age limits on social networking sites and other online activities. Make them understand that even seemingly innocuous items that they post on social networking sites, such as Facebook, can provide predators with valuable, useful information. Never allow the child to have their social networking profile open or “public” and viewable by someone outside of their group of “friends”. Tell your child to never accept friend requests from people they do not know. They must be made to understand that in the “real world”, they meet new friends face to face vs. meeting friends online where they never truly know who’s on the other side of that computer.
Most importantly, do not allow your child to use Internet chat rooms – they are simply too dangerous. Think of allowing this as allowing your child to spend time in dark alleys talking to adults. Statistics show that over 80% of online sexual solicitations occur in chat rooms. If you do allow your child to use chat rooms, know which ones your child uses and never allow them to leave the public chat room for a private chat room. The rule in this case should be – “Never”. Of course, never allow your child to respond to instant messages from strangers.
You can also only give your child a family email address, especially when they are young. When they are allowed to have their own email address, monitor it carefully. Most email accounts allow advanced configurations that force the email server to retain a copy of the email (i.e. do not delete the email from the server once it has been downloaded to the client email application). You can configure your child’s account to leave the email on the server and configure your own email client to download and delete the email off of the server. This will ensure you always have a copy of your child’s email communications.
Other preventative measures to consider are keeping the child’s computer in a family room and not in their bedroom Some parents will tell the child that the bedroom is for sleeping, not for playing on the computer. Understand that most predators wok late at night so restricting the child’s time on the computer and not allowing late night usage also cuts down the risk.
If all else fails and your child does meet an online predator, do not blame the child. The adult offender is always to blame. Instruct your child how they could have better handled the situation so that it does not happen again.
What kids can do
Never download images from an unknown source. Tell an adult immediately if anything happens online that makes them feel uncomfortable or scared. Choose gender neutral screen names and screen names that do not include sexually suggestive words (such as “hot girl”). Never reveal personal information about themselves including age or gender. And stop any email communication or chat room talks if anyone starts to ask questions that are sexually suggestive. Do not laugh it off and given them another chance. If you do, they will stop for a while and then slowly, over time, begin to re-introduce sexual content into the talks until the child *is* comfortable talking about it.
What to do if your child is targeted
If the child receives sexually explicit pictures or is solicited sexually online, contact the local police immediately. Even if you feel you have the situation under control, you should report it to the authorities. Chances are the predator is doing the same thing with several other children at the same time and reporting just might save a kid’s life. Also be sure to save all documentation. For online communications that are difficult to save (or cut and paste), use Ctrl-Print to capture a screen shot and paste it into Word or Notepad.