In my last radio interview on WMNH, the host Matt Connarton and I talked about protecting children from online predators. I wrote about that issue in my article here. As a result, I was given an opportunity to write about this topic more comprehensively for a company named Jiobit, which sells child tracking devices to give parents an “extra set of eyes.” You can see that article here.
This article is one of several that this company has commissioned to answer the question, “In what ways has parenting changed, or become more challenging than it was for our own parents?” The purpose of this article is to discuss some latest research on the methods that online predators use to target victims, describe the characteristics of children who are more likely to be targeted, and then provide a list of action steps for protecting children from online predators.
In short, the main message of this article is this: While the danger of being victimized by sexual predators that the child knows (which represents the majority of cases) is about the same as it has always been, the introduction of technology – particularly technology that allows children and teenagers to communicate with and be contacted by, people across the globe – has broadened the reach of would-be offenders. Chat rooms and online gaming appear to be a primary means for offenders to begin the process of entering a child’s world. Our parents didn’t have to worry about these issues. Parents now have to worry not only about protecting children from predators in general, but also protecting children from online predators.
After I discuss the research on how predators operate, and what parents can do to make their children more aware of their lurking, I will be discussing the more important issue of how your overall parenting is the best defense against victimization. Building your child’s self-esteem, teaching him to be confident enough to trust his gut, making them certain that they can trust you and tell you anything, and that you will be on their side – these kinds of lessons don’t come from a sitdown that you check off your list. The life skills that will help them navigate through life’s multiple snags, decisions and disappointments happen as a result of your consistent, positive, loving parenting.
Some research on protecting children from online predators
In an article published this year in the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, the authors analyzed chat transcripts between youth who had been targeted and the perpetrators. Most academic research tends to focus on the sex offender’s point of view. This article decided to take the victim’s perspective into account as well.
According to the European Online Grooming Project, there are three types of young people, in order of their vulnerability. Vulnerable children are at the highest risk of victimization. They are described as having “something wrong or missing in their lives.” They communicate a feeling of not being listened to or understood. They also may have few options for exploring their sexuality, either because of social isolation or because their family would not be supportive of their orientation.
Youth who are at-risk participate in one or many of the following online behaviors: sending out personal information online, using chat rooms frequently, browsing the internet on their phone frequently, communicating with people they have met online, having a close online relationship, and engaging in sexual talk or behavior online.
There is also greater risk for youth with certain characteristics;
- being female,
- being 14-17 years old,
- identifying as homosexual or bisexual,especially if parents are perceived to be unsupportive
- having poor relationships with parents and/or peers,
- having psychological issues like loneliness and depression, a history of physical or sexual abuse, and substance use.
Any one of these characteristics by itself does not necessarily mean that your child is at risk, but as more of these characteristics combine, your child may be more vulnerable. In addition, as more of these characteristics combine with the at-risk online behaviors I have mentioned above, your child becomes even more vulnerable. If a child is chatting with someone online about their struggles, a predator is likely to see that as opportunity knocking.
According to an article entitled, “Protecting children from online sexual predators,” one in five (1 in 5) children is solicited for sex over the internet annually. Since sexual abuse is predictive of adult problems like anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship problems, and suicidal ideation, this is a serious problem that must be taken seriously by parents of children who participate in online activity.
The grooming process – how your child could be gradually targeted
The typical process of gaining access to victims is a process that law enforcement calls “grooming.” The grooming process begins with prosocial contact which is designed to gain the affection and trust of the child. This can involve questions about and feigned interest in the child’s hobbies and interests. The predator may ask about the child’s relationship with his parents, in order to ferret out information about difficulties that can be exploited. The predator may tell the child that he understands him, perhaps in a way that his parents can’t. This stage of contact involves kind words and compliments, gifts, playing time on gaming platforms, listening to the child’s complaints, and showing sympathy for her plight.
For a child who is lacking affection, or attention, whose family life is dysfunctional, and rife with behavioral or emotional distress, this kind of affection, attention and understanding is a craving that the predator will attempt to fill. Of course, the child may not be aware that the predator does not have good intentions in mind.
The next phase of the grooming process is the escalation from chatting through a messenger platform to email, and then perhaps to phone calls, and/or the exchange of gifts or pictures. The predator may attempt to desensitize the child to pornography. They may send them pictures of progressively graphic images and videos, in order to normalize sexual content and activity. (much to my disgust, this is a practice that Michael Jackson appears to have used, according to an article on Vice.com.) At some point, the predator will try to breach the internet divide and arrange a meeting.
When the victim is female, she may be under the delusion that she is in a relationship with the predator, enmeshed in him emotionally, and worried that he may leave her if she does not agree to his requests. Regardless of gender, another tactic the predator may use is to blackmail the child with the pictures she or he may have sent. If the predator was able to get pictures of the child in various stages of undress, the predator can threaten to post them on his social media pages, or send them to his parents.
Children who put themselves at risk may be doing so merely out of curiosity, while others may be doing it out of a desperate need for attention and affection. There is a movie, starring Nicholas Cage and Michael Caine, called The Weatherman, which addresses how a lack of parental monitoring or attention can make a child vulnerable to predators. Nicholas Cage’s character is divorced, unhappy, and still involved in a contentious relationship with the mother of his children.
His son is targeted by his guidance counselor, who uses kind words, deeds and gifts to gain access to the teenage son’s presence in his home. After a long grooming process, he comments on the son’s muscles. The son mentions that he has been working out. The guidance counselor suggests that they take some “before” pictures of him without his shirt, in order to compare them to his physique later on. Luckily, the son has a supportive relationship with his grandfather, and tells him what has happened, which quickly ends the son’s victimization.
What can parents do?
While this movie is not about online predator behavior, it has a similar message for us. The youth who are most vulnerable to the efforts of online (and in-person) predators are those without a caregiver who is actively involved in their lives. If a child has no one to talk to about their struggles, disappointments, and trouble, he is exposed to the fake affection that the predator will provide.
Whew! I’m so sorry that I have to write about this. It makes me sick to my stomach to think about any child being targeted and victimized, and it hurts my heart to make you think about it. However —
There is good news.
As I’ve stated in earlier articles, the key to positive, effective parenting is to provide your child with an abundance of warmth, empathy and affection. While some people suggest that praise, rewards and kindness is somehow the equivalent of coddling, and will create spoiled children, I submit that these gifts to your children are the building blocks for creating strong, courageous, and self-assured adults who feel confident enough in their own internal signals to know when something that someone else says or does is inappropriate.
I mentioned above that there were three types of children. I have already talked about vulnerable children, and at-risk children. The third type of children, who are generally able to tell when someone else is speaking or behaving in a way that makes them uncomfortable, and is able to then reject requests for personal information or pictures, is called the “resilient child.” According to the article in Psychology, Crime and Law, the resilient child is the product of homes with “protective factors” such as a supportive family environment, positive communication, regular monitoring (knowing what your child is doing), trust, warmth and empathy. These protective factors are the best defense against the predator’s reach.
Top 7 tips for protecting children from online predators
There are 7 specific things that the articles I have summarized suggest you do to raise awareness about how online predators act, and to keep your child from being exposed to them too frequently:
1) Instill awareness of the danger of sharing personal information;
2) Discuss their online friends, and emphasize that they should never exchange pornography or explicit photos;
3) Explain that they should never agree to any online meetings;
4) Establish guidelines for appropriate Internet use (what types of sites are ok? what types of videos are off-limits?);
5) Look carefully at your child’s screen names. Predators look for screen names that are sexually explicit, or are attached to suggestive photos. Force your child to change any screen name that might imply an openness to sexual talk;
6) Require your child to use their computer or other device in a public location;
7) If any attempt is made to get your child to take steps that lead down the grooming road, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). You can learn about NCMEC or donate to their important work by clicking here.
Parenting experts chime in on their own practices
In addition to these suggestions, I recently conducted an informal survey of parents who are members of several facebook pages I have joined. I asked them what they do to try to protect their children from online predators. Some of the additional suggestions they had were:
- A very basic and key concept for my readers to understand, as Feather Berkower, founder of a parentingsafechildren.com, and provider of a lively, 4 hour workshop about keeping children safe, told me is this: It is not your child’s job to be wary of sexual predators as much as it is YOURS. If you see another adult interacting with your child in a questionable way, you should intervene. Predators are like bullies – if they see that a potential victim is empowered, and sheltered by a strong family structure, they will move on.
- Use correct terms for body anatomy. We want
our children to feel comfortable talking about their body, when necessary, rather than feeling awkward and embarrassed.
- Teach them that it is ok to say No! There’s a great article by Fresh Start Family that emphasizes how important it is for all of us to know that we are allowed to refuse anything we want to refuse.
- Teach your children that, “Adults don’t ask kids for help.” With the exception of asking kids to do their chores, if an adult asks you to help them find their puppy, or lift something into their van, etc., do not trust them.
- Teach them “body autonomy.” You are not required to give hugs or kisses, and no one touches you within the “bathing suit area,” except you and a doctor, if necessary.
- There are no secrets, only surprises. If something happens, and you are told that you that you can’t tell anyone about what happened, because you’ll get in trouble, this is a lie.
- Monitor their social networks and gaming platforms. Tell your child that you want to know their passwords, and that you are going to look at their activity from time to time. This is not because you don’t trust them, but because you don’t trust others, and you want to make sure you aren’t being targeted without knowing it.
- Advise them that photographs that you send can go anywhere. You don’t want anything revealing to be in the hands of someone you have never met.
The final word – your overall parenting is your child’s best defense
As important as all of these suggestions are, the truth is that your child may still encounter one or more predators in her lifetime. According to a researcher named David Finkelhor, the best defense against sexual predators, bullies, and other victimizers is a more generic education about life skills that are taught over a long term of everyday interactions between caring, attentive parents and resilient children. Most of the resilient children in the study about chat rooms refused to take any of the steps of the grooming process that went beyond mere acquaintance, and they used the life skills that Finkelhor describes to do it.
What are those life skills, Dr. John?
This is my commission to you, as parents – use kindness, boundaries, and modeling proper behavior in your own life to create resilient children, who can fight off the advances of these evil predators. As a result of just doing this, you will likely, just as a matter of course, teach your children appropriate ways to manage conflict, how to see things from another person’s perspective, how to control your emotions and make rational decisions even when your feelings seem overwhelming, how to think clearly about the consequences of actions (such as giving away your phone number or email address, or sending photos of yourself to a stranger), how to be comfortable saying NO! when you want to refuse a request, and why you should always – when you need it – seek out help from someone who’s got your back if you are not sure what you should do.
When your child knows that you are there, listening, supportive, loving and caring for them, and you are acting like the person you want your child to become, she will be much less likely to succumb to the advances of some unknown creep. Why do they need someone they’ve never met, when they have you?
Enjoy your parenting! I look forward to your comments.