Of all the hazards online, contact by strangers, whether sexual, angry or predatory by nature, is the most common – and potentially the most dangerous. Nearly every instance of Internet child luring or abduction begins with a relationship initiated by a “stranger.” It is vitally important for parents to help children understand what constitutes a “stranger” online. Tell a child to consider any person met online a stranger, unless he is certain the person he is writing to is someone they know well in person.
Keeping Kids Safe
“You wouldn’t allow your child to walk across the street to talk to total strangers, don’t allow them to go online to talk to strangers,” says FBI Special Agent Randy Aden, who was a member of the FBI’s Crimes Against Children unit in L.A. until transferring recently to Ventura, California.
Of course, most people your kids will meet on the Internet are harmless and interested in communicating in an honest way. But the reality of malicious contact is there. In fact, 22 percent of children ages 10 to 13 will be approached by an online predator, according to research from CyberAngels.com.
Profile of a Predator
Although considering the possibility that their child may come face-to-face with a sexual predator may be something many parents would rather not think about, it is an issue too important to ignore.
According to law enforcement and experts, the first line of defense against a child falling victim to an Internet predator is awareness. “Making both parents and kids aware of Internet predators is the best way to ensure safety on the Net in the long run,” says Internet safety authority Josh Finer.
“If parents don’t know how a pedophile builds the child’s trust, there is a much greater likelihood of online victimization,” says Tracey O’Connell-Jay, founder and director of Web Wise Kids, whose own 14-year-old sister disappeared for four months with a man she met online.
Although each case is different, many Internet safety experts say online predators typically troll for children who are vulnerable, including kids who are lonely or new to online life. But other experts caution that parents should not feel immune because they believe their child is happy and well adjusted. Pre- adolescents, they say, are typically at a stage of development of insecurity and exploration, a frame of mind easily manipulated.
“Children just reaching adolescence are the most mobile – they may not drive but they can get around, they are curious about their sexuality, and, in varying degrees, they feel that they don’t like home, they don’t like school, they aren’t popular enough,” says Aden. “If they are online with somebody who is playing the role right, who is manipulating them, the kid could be in a lot of danger.”
In fact, children running away from home to meet a stranger they met online is so common now that the FBI’s
“The kids are not running away to meet a stranger; they are running away to meet somebody they think they can trust,” says
Once the child’s barriers of caution are broken down, a predator introduces topics of a more personal and even sexual nature, such as asking about the child’s own sexuality or preying upon their natural curiosity. Predators often use images of child pornography to give the impression that it is normal for children to be involved in sexual activities. Finally, the online predator makes his move and arranges a face-to-face meeting with the child .
Parents also need to be aware that the majority of contact by pedophiles is initiated in online areas of “real-time” communication, such as chat rooms and instant messaging (IM). In fact, according to the report Online Victimization, in 65 percent of the incidents of online sexual solicitation or harassment the meeting occurred in a chat room; 24 percent occurred through IM.
“Chat sites are a great way to meet people online and can be lots of fun. But they are open to misuse,” says Belinda Sproston, spokesperson for CyberPatrol parental control software. “Monitor your child’s use of chat rooms and keep them out of those (rooms) that are unmonitored, as children can be under threat from dangerous persons masquerading as kids in chat rooms.”
Finer points out that targeting kids in these live-chat areas is often a function of searching screen names and profiles. “Parents need to make sure to first, be aware of their kids’ screen names and certainly make sure they do not have any identifying info or anything suggestive in them. For example, ‘Scranton-cheer’ seems logical enough for a Scranton High cheerleader, but it would also give predators a geographic location to search on. Also, some teens have surprisingly suggestive names – for example “sexyteen5” – and this can attract the wrong kind of attention.”
Given the inherent risk and lack of options when dealing with chat and IM, some parents have opted not to allow their children access to them at all. At the least, young children should never explore these capabilities alone or without prior permission to visit a specific channel or room, preferably one that is monitored and limited to kids only.
Monica Clover, a Northridge mother of two, says her children each have a computer in their room, but it is not connected to the Internet.
A computer in the den is the only one with Internet access, but her children do not have e-mail addresses.
“They have to ask for permission to go online,” says Clover, of her kids ages 9 and 11. “They can only go to Disney or Cheatsheets.com to get game codes.”
Continue: Parent Power! What you can do to keep your kids safe.
Return to: Keeping Kids Safe on the Internet
Related reading: Cyber Brats: Protect your kids from bullies who taunt their peers with the click of a mouse.