It is a sad but horrifyingly real fact that at any moment, thousands of paedophiles are loose on the Internet looking for vulnerable children. From a hiding place such as a fake identity, they prey on the exposure young children or adults create when they legitimately engage in social interaction with their peers, believing themselves perfectly safe as any child would, in the warmth of their own home.

Parents and children must be alive to these risks.

MAKE YOUR CHILD READ THIS!

Montréal's largest daily newspaper, the Journal de Montreal conducted a study in the summer of 2007 summarized as follows:

"Sticking to websites frequented by kids, and never initiating conversations about sex, it wasn't long before grown men were online quizzing them in explicit tones. Some of the men requested nude photos while others asked the 'children' to strip in front of their webcams. And then there were those who wanted more -- asking to, when parents were out, meet for sex. The French daily's sting included a rented apartment in Montreal, where men showed up, expecting to meet underage girls. Instead, they faced journalists."

child on computer © tan4ikk - Fotolia.comA 2006 survey conducted by NBC:

"... questioned 500 teenagers across the country, ages 14 to 18, about their computer habits. When asked if they chat online to people they’ve never met before, an overwhelming majority said "yes," whether it’s "all the time," "sometimes," or "not very often." When asked if someone they’ve met online has wanted to meet them in person, 58 percent said "yes." And 29 percent said they’ve had a "scary" experience online."

A 2005 study on teens online by the Polly Klass Foundation at pollyklaas.org/internet-safety/internet-pdfs/PollingSummary.pdf produced findings even more scary:

  • 54% of teens freely communicate with people they have never met and 27% say they've talked in a sexual manner to such a stranger;
  • 42% says they've posted personal information for anyone to see - 56% of girls and 37% of boys; and
  • 56% of online teens surveyed say they've been asked personal questions by a stranger online.

Even well known Internet social sites are far from safe.

What to do?

Children are vulnerable even in the care of their parents.

A strong bond of trust between parent and child is essential to any effective Internet safety strategy.

The child who is lied to will learn to lie depriving a parent of often the best window a parent has into their child's private life.

This is especially true as the child gets older as parents will have to walk a fine line between wishing to give an older child more privacy the child yearns for, and the parent's need to ensure that his/her child is safe.

At the end of the day,  what you are trying to achieve is for the child to come to you or another trusting adult, such as a teacher, and disclose any untoward or suspicious approach from the Internet.

Disclosure sometimes comes in the form of a single opportunity to prevent or stop child sexual abuse and it is an opportunity that no parent or adult can afford to miss or misinterpret.

♦  Do not just dump your child in front of a computer with a spanking new Internet connection. If, as a parent, you have no knowledge of the Internet, simply do not let your younger child use it.

As a parent, you have a responsibility to make yourself aware of the "highway" that the Internet is so that your child does not "run out in traffic" without knowing the rules of the road. Here's a simple test: if you have never visited "Facebook", then you are not qualified to supervise and your child is at risk.

♦  Children start off with the best of intentions as they sign up for a variety of social websites or messaging systems or services. They use aliases  but they frequently tease-in real facts about themselves. Or they will be forthcoming about themselves in a forum which is attended by a "friend of a friend of a friend", all also protected by aliases, which predators use as part of their deception.

♦  Be especially careful with web-cams. This technology fascinates children but it is also something that attracts predators. Effective parental supervision requires knowledge of the portal websites. Parents should create an account for themselves and play with including activating a web cam. Learn the controls available within the popular social media websites and negotiate this with your child. Better yet, don't let them web cam!

♦  Most children are trusting and do not suspect or even anticipate the level or extent of mental illness or just plain evil necessary to attempt to lure a child sexually, or even what all that might mean. Even if this is explained to them, the child's inclination may be to minimize or reject the parental information, declaring you to be "paranoid". Be alive to, even embrace this "educational challenge" and stay with it.

♦  Supervise, monitor and watch your child as they commence their forays onto the Internet. The supervision should start at 100% with a younger child and work its way down to closer to zero as the child approaches an age where they leave the home.

♦  Except with a mature, older child, on the cusp of adulthood, do not allow the child to access the Internet in an unsupervised area such as the child's bedroom.

♦  Make yourself aware of computer access otherwise available to your child such as unsupervised access at school or access at a friend's house where the parents are prepared to "pooh-pooh" the dangers of the Internet.

♦  Tell the child about the existence of pornography and predators on the Internet. You do not have to use words which will traumatize the child but at the same time, be direct about this. The sad reality is that the Internet is laden with persons afflicted with sexual deviances, including paedophiles, as well as pornography dungeons. You want your child to have their own sixth sense about trouble and danger when it shows up on some social media or other website when you are not around to supervise.

♦  One of the foremost indicators of a child's exposure to danger is the amount of time they spend on the Internet generally, and social media sites in particular.

♦  Keep an eye out for children who go out of their way to hide their Internet activity, such as quickly swapping browser windows when a parent enters the room. Some kids are not so adept and will simply power off the monitor when the parent is around. Many teens actually have code words to alert other chat participants of parental presence. This is a a sign of child judgment issues.

♦  Perhaps the most important advice of all is to be alive to difficulties of children who live in poverty, with adversarial separated parents, with working parents that rarely spend enough time with them, or with parents who are themselves abusive towards their children. These are the primary fishing waters for predators because these children are not supported by an interested and available parent while at the same time, these children have not had their emotional needs met. Predators are often practiced and a vulnerable child is frequently no match.

References and Further Reading

  • Burnett, Thane, Where Strangers Lurk, Toronto Sun, September 20, 2007
  • MSNBC Dateline, April 2006, Most Teens Say They Have Met Strangers Online
  • Polly Klaas Foundation at pollyklaas.org
  • Brooklyn District Attorney Office, Strangers In The Net
  • ... and thanks to my friend DR, a real Dad! - for his comments as well.