Thankfully, the answer is probably not. Most children use the internet to socialize with friends and pursue budding interests. They manage to steer clear of the dangerous predators lurking in chat rooms and other forums who slyly manipulate their way into electronic networks of school-age friends to find and groom the next vulnerable child for future exploitation. While most children are safe on the internet, as you read these words some are in danger. Is your child one of these unfortunate few? How would you know before it is too late?
Given the risks, parents cannot feel secure with the mere probability their child will be safe. Even “good” or “smart” children are still just children and make, or can be induced to make, bad decisions with tragic consequences. Short of physically being present during your child’s every encounter with the internet, there is no way for a parent to be 100% sure their child has not been contacted by a predator. Parents need to know the characteristics of typical victims, the warning signs a predator has entered your child’s life, and steps they can take to protect their children.
Characteristics of typical victims:
* Most but not all victims are between the age of 12 and 15 years old.
* Most victims have an instant message account (most kids do) but have not set up privacy or security settings to block strangers and, in fact, willingly engage in conversations with strangers.
* Most victims tend to live in suburban or rural towns.
* Most victims are very sheltered and naïve, although a few are at the opposite extreme and willing to take very serious risks.
* Most victims tend to be loners with few offline friends. They are often looking for love and affection online. Many children contacted by predators believe they are communicating with someone around their own age, and not with an adult.
* Most victims tend to spend more than 90 minutes of non-homework time a day online, and are secretive about their internet activities. When you walk by, the screen often goes blank or windows are minimized.
* Most victims tend to have few activities outside of the internet.
Just because your child matches one or more of these characteristics does not mean they are being targeted by predators, nor is your child perfectly safe if they match none of these characteristics. In all circumstances, a parent should be ever vigilant and involved in their children’s on-line activities.
Warning signs your child is being contacted by a predator:
* Phone calls. Are strange calls showing up on your phone bills? Don’t assume you can pick out adults calling your children – a 35 year old can sound very much like a 15 year old if they want to.
* Gifts and packages arriving at your house. Many predators groom their victims by sending small gifts. Some predators have been known to send disposable cameras or web cameras for children to take pictures of themselves with.
* Secrecy. Teens are often secretive, and often it is a symptom of nothing more than their carving out an independent life for themselves. However, if your child is taking secrecy to an extreme, or has suddenly become more secretive than before, it is cause for concern.
* Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Predators are masters of manipulation. Unexplained and sudden changes in your child’s mood or behavior may be a sign they are being manipulated in ways they are not comfortable with but are reluctant to talk about.
Steps to protect your child:
* Teach your child to not communicate online with people they have not physically met offline. This absolutely means friends of friends. Predators often infiltrate a network of child friends by finding the one weak link and using that person’s trust to gain contact with others. Under no circumstances should a child meet in person someone they only know online – in most cases where a child is exploited, the child is conned or coerced into willingly meeting the predator offline
* Go through your child’s list of internet buddies and have them tell you the real name of each person on the list.
* Review you child’s home page or online profile. Make sure there is no personally identifiable information there, including photos, school name, or team names. Many predators keep detailed files on their targets and gather information over time from a variety of sources. Even seemingly innocuous information may prove harmful when combined with comments made weeks or months later. “I play catcher on my baseball team”, “I went to a Red Sox game!”, and “Big game against Bedford tomorrow – I hope we crush them!” can tell a predator their target probably lives in the Boston area and is playing baseball somewhere in Bedford the following afternoon. A quick Google search will show the public schools in Bedford and which ones have baseball games scheduled.
* If your child has been approached or harassed online, have them immediately delete their old account, pick a new username and start another. Do not let the harassment continue.
* Absolutely prohibit web-cams. Easy-to-use $20 Webcams instantly transmit high-quality continuous color video across the globe and are used by predators to exploit children.
* Most importantly, install keylogger or monitoring software on the computer used by your child( one vendor of such software is PCSentinel Software – www.pcsentinelsoftware.com ). There is no other way to be totally certain of what your child is doing online or who they are communicating with – and there is no other way of keeping 100% accurate records of what was said in the event your child is contacted by a predator. Even though it may feel like “spying” on your child, a parent has a responsibility to know with certainty who is in their child’s life and keylogger software provides that certainty.