Is Someone Preying On Your Child?

An alert from the Guidance Office

If you knew that there were 100 sex offenders at the local mall, looking for boys and girls who they could befriend and then sexually molest, would you drop your child off for a day of shopping? How about for an hour of shopping? Would any level of exposure to this risk be safe? Of course, the answer to this question is a resounding “No!” However, this is what many parents unknowingly allow their children to do on a daily basis when they permit them to interact online without supervision. Online social networking sites like Facebook are very popular with middle level children. There are many other on-line sites where children connect with strangers, often without their parents’ knowledge. Examples include: chat rooms, blog sites, bulletin boards and even innocent-looking gaming sites. Any site where a child can interact with others is, potentially, a dangerous place.Technology is developing at an exponential pace and it’s hard for parents to keep up. Predators, unfortunately, are way ahead of you. Their methods will astound and scare you. Most adults are behind the learning curve. I frequently talk with parents about the risks of on-line communications.

Five Common Themes from Parents

My child isn’t on Facebook

Are you sure about that? Many parents assume that, because they don’t see their child on Facebook at home, that they don’t access those sites. Social networking accounts can be created anywhere. Some children create sites and maintain them at a friend’s house. Facebook has over 600 million active users. Children under the required age can simply enter a false birth date in order to register. Did you know that, in February, 2009, MySpace deleted 90,000 known sex offenders from its rolls? 90,000! Imagine how many sex offenders are still on MySpace who haven’t been caught yet! Predators surf the web 24/7 looking for children like yours. If your child has postings or pictures anywhere on the web, assume they are being viewed by predators.

My child is safe online because s/he only communicates with people s/he knows

Don’t be so sure. The definition of “knowing” someone differs for children and adults. Children will say they “know” someone well after communicating with them online for as little as a week. They consider a friendship to be a strong one if they have a lot in common with the person. Sexual predators take advantage of this by gathering information about your child from on-line sites (like Facebook) and general community information they obtain using clues from your child’s online postings and then pretending to be just like them. Therein lies the biggest risk of online communications – they are virtually anonymous. How do you know that the boy your daughter communicates with nightly is really the “cool friend of a friend” and not a sexual predator who tricked that friend three months ago?” You don’t, and neither does your child.

Advice: Ask to see your child’s friend list. Go through each person and ask how your child knows them. If you don’t know the person, your child shouldn’t be communicating with them. Don’t be tricked by listings that have a corresponding photo of a young person. Anyone can post a photo and say it’s them. Predators also write like their potential victims – abbreviating words and making errors like an adolescent would. A general rule of thumb is, don’t communicate with anyone you haven’t met in person. Anyone you meet online – no matter what the source or connection – should be considered suspicious. Make sure your child blocks strangers’ access to his/her social networking page by setting the privacy settings to high.

I make sure my child doesn’t post any identifying information that a predator could use to find him/her

Parents don’t realize that these days all information is “identifying” information. Things as innocuous as your child’s favorite sport, pet, vacation destination, or least-liked subject can be used by a predator to lure them into thinking they are soul mates with the same likes, dislikes, and feelings. Predators are a patient group. They will work on a child for months, until s/he thinks of them as a friend. There is no safe level of information that a child can post. All information could be used by a predator to trick children into thinking they are just like them.

I’ve seen my child’s social networking page and I approve of what’s on it

The content of social networking pages changes moment to moment. Postings that begin as innocent correspondence can deteriorate into cyber bullying in the time it takes to click your mouse. Monitor the nature of your child’s correspondences and teach him/her to post in responsible ways. Colleges routinely check applicants’ Facebook pages to get a sense of the integrity of their applicants. Similarly, employers are using social networking sites to assess the integrity of their applicants. Pictures of a child partying or scantily clad may have social value but it could also cause that child to be overlooked for college acceptance or a job opportunity. Help your child realize the implications and permanency of their postings. Once something is posted, it can live in cyberspace forever.

My child frequently minimizes (hides) the computer screen when I walk into the room

This is a red flag that your child is viewing or doing something they shouldn’t be doing on line. Children want to fit in and are often willing to do things they know you wouldn’t approve of in order to be accepted by their peers. On-line communications should never be allowed in private. Healthy families insist that computers and cell phones are in a public setting (not in the bedroom) and that everything done online is subject to parental review. If your child resists showing you something s/he is doing on-line then privileges should be suspended. This includes Facebook. It’s that important.

Be alert, too, to what happens in your home when your child has a guest over. I frequently hear reports of slumber parties where attendees access the host’s home computer and, in the wee hours of the morning, visit inappropriate sites and send inappropriate messages. Peer pressure is a strong force with adolescents. Don’t assume that your child will be able to say no to an influential “friend” at three o’clock in the morning. Make sure that you make it impossible for overnight guests to access your family’s computers and cell phones while you are sleeping.

Parenting isn’t as clear cut as it used to be. To be effective in today’s world, parents have to employ modern rules and expectations in order to keep their children safe. It’s black and white – you must take charge. Stay on top of the curve. Do some surfing yourself and stay informed of the trends. Check out these sites for more information and links to helpful resources: