Protecting Children from Internet Predators
Protecting Your Children from Internet Predators
Most children today engage in some type of online social networking. My Space in becoming a bit obsolete, but Facebook, Twitter and blogging are commonplace. Social networking is a wonderful way to stay in touch with current friends, reconnect with old friends and even to meet new ones. It is the latter than can often become problematic. While the internet offers relatively easy and unlimited access to the outside world at large, it can also be relatively anonymous. We can tell others only what we want them to believe, post pictures of what we wish we looked like instead of pictures of our true selves, and we can speak in lies or half-truths. In short, we can manufacture entirely new identities and use the internet as a means of escape. This is precisely what appeals to the internet predator.
In 2002, a thirteen year old girl by the name of Kacie Rene Woody, was taken from her home by a forty seven year old man that she had met on the internet. Kacie trusted this man because they had met in a Christian chat room and because he had pretended to be a seventeen year old boy. Internet predators will troll the internet looking for impressionable kids, often, the younger the better. Kids found in sites such as Christian chat rooms, are thought to be innocent, pure and vulnerable. Just what predators are looking for. In Kacie’s case, as in most cases, her predator learned everything he could about her and used the information to make her feel safe and special. Because they had met in a Christian site, he often said he would pray for her when she was ill or feeling down. On the evening of December 3, Dave Fuller, internet predator, broke into Kacie’s home, snuck up behind her with a chloroformed rag, and abducted her. Dave Fuller then drove off with Kacie, found a secluded spot, chained her to the floor of his van, raped her and shot her in the head, killing her. Afterward, with police closing in, he shot and killed himself.
In another tragic case, Kristin, a 14 year old girl met a 27 year old man on the internet. She talked with him for many months and eventually came to believe that she was in love with him. She was a smart, articulate, beautiful girl who played sports and excelled in school. But this young man treated her in a manner that made her feel beautiful and special, and consequently, she surrendered her good judgment. Kristin was convinced to meet this young man at a motel one afternoon. She agreed to go because she loved and trusted him. This man sexually assaulted Kristin and then left her there alone. She never heard from him again. In the weeks that followed, Kristin became withdrawn and significantly depressed. Her father came home from church one Sunday to find Kristin hanging from the rafters in their home. Kristin was dead. Her rapist spent nine years in prison.
You might ask yourself how two young girls who were bright, beautiful and devoted to their Christian faith and families, could end up dead, one in the back of a van, the victim of someone she had met online in a Christian chat room. The reason that predators are so adept at reeling in their prey, is that they exercise infinite patience. Many chat with their prey for months before even suggesting a meeting. By that time, the kids believe they are really friends, or that they are really in love. Predators learn what makes their prey tick and what their prey are likely to respond to. Being somewhat juvenile in their own lives, they have the ability to relate to children sometimes several decades younger than themselves. They hang out in places where kids are likely to be, listening and observing how they talk, dress and act. They are able to mimic these attributes flawlessly.
It is not difficult in most cases for the predators to exercise such patience. Because they likely have several online “relationships” going at once, they are all likely in various stages of the grooming process. Not all predators are intent on killing children, but nearly all are intent on sexually abusing and exploiting them. For some, murder is part of the deal, for others, it is the sad conclusion to an encounter than got out of control once the perpetrator and the victim met and the victim realized that they had not really been talking to another teenager.
Most kids are not savvy enough to filter their conversations. They think they are safe if they remain fairly general in their conversations. But predators keep notes and they are likely using them to build profiles that can help them to find your kids if that is there intention. Telling an online “friend” what city they live in, when their days off from school are scheduled, what their parents do for a living or where they work, what school clubs they are involved with, what honors or accolades they have received, and who their best friends are, are all bits of information that can be used to track your kids.
Most of us tend to think that giving out only the most innocuous information keeps us safe. But imagine this scenario. You child goes missing. Investigation turns up the name and address of a 62 year old laborer from Lexington, KY. Your child thought this man was a 14 year old, really cute boy from a good family. Inside of his trailer, police find several dozen notebooks, each with a different child’s name on the cover. There is a notebook for your child as well. The first page includes the man’s phony profile. He has to remember all the details of who he claimed to be in order to win your child’s trust. The following pages include snippets of information including:
- Your Child's Name (14)
- Blue eyes
- 110 lbs.
- Scar on left knee from falling off bike when she was 10
- Two brothers (Sam and Paul)
- Parents divorced. Lives with mom. Dad lives in Phoenix (BONUS!!)
- Eighth grade
- Best friends: Lexi, Aaron; Sam; Kelsey; Nicole; and Jason
- Swim team…does the butterfly
- Plays softball on a church league (team name: The Gippers)
- Peanut butter cups
- Gilmore Girls
- Johnny Depp
- Mean people
- Mr. Richards (math teacher)
The child in this scenario may have believed she was safe because she did not give out such things as her home address or telephone number. She didn’t name the school or church that she attended. The thing about predators is that they are adept at using basic information to search for additional clues. Using Google or similar search engines to look up names may lead to all kinds of information that the child did not put out there. For example, if your child has ever been in the newspaper there may be a wealth of information for a predator. Names may be mentioned in obituaries (survivors of grandparents, for example), or in sports columns as part of the school’s winning soccer or football teams. These are the types of columns that offer the city in which the child lives or the school that they attend. Once this information is available, any dedicated predator will be able to find your child.
In most cases, there is no way of knowing for sure, until you meet in person and it is too late, whether or not the person with whom you are communicating is honest and safe. There are a few steps that can be taken in any home to increase chances of increased safety with respect to internet chatting.
- Keep the family computer in a well-used area of the house
- Assure that the screen is facing into the room
- Keep computers password protected. You can log your children in, but do not give them the password. This will help assure that you know exactly when they are using the internet
- Establish hours for internet usage
- Set up social networking accounts for your kids using YOUR email address. That way you will receive notices of messages and wall posts that are left for your child. You can investigate them further if you feel the need
- Accept friend requests from your child's friends. At first it seemed wrong to me, having teenage and preteen kids requesting to be my friend. Then I realized it was the best way to keep an eye on what was going on with the kids that my kids were hanging out with
- Keep an eye on the number of "friends" your child has on any social networking site. Kids like to collect friends and often have several hundred or even over 1000 friends. Who really knows that many people? If your child has that many friends, chance are, there are dozens of people with access to their personal information, that they don't even know and cannot trust. Talk to them about this
- Occasionally visit sites of random friends from your kids' "friend" lists. It will help you stay in tuned with what is going on in their world. I am not advocating for "spying." I am advocating for being an interested, concerned parent. If you come across anything of concern, be honest and talk to your child about it
- Install spyware on your computer and monitor sites that have been visited
- Use software to block certain sites such as pornography or chat room sites
- Insist that social networking accounts are set up to be completely private and not public
- Do not accept friendship requests from persons that you do not know well, or that you do not want to have access to your personal information
- Defriend individuals that make you uncomfortable, or have been otherwise disrespectful
- Never give out personal information to people that you don’t know personally
- Do not use personal pictures as profile pictures. Cartoons and avatars make better profile pictures. You can always post personal pictures to your private account
- Make a pact with friends that you will not share each other’s personal information with anyone else (this isn’t foolproof, but it will help reduce sharing of information)
- Report suspicious friend requests or malicious use of social networking sites (such as cyberbullying) immediately to family and to site network administrators
- Limit or disable internet access via i-Phone or i-Pod touch
- Investigate the policy of internet usage at your child’s school
- Talk to the parents of your child’s friends to assure that they are aware of your internet usage rules. Kids will often obey rules at home, but do the exact opposite when at their friends’ houses
- Establish and enforce consequences for disobeying internet usage rules
- Engage in regular, open and honest dialogue with your kids about the dangers of the internet, social networking and chat rooms
- Reinforce the notion that it isn’t that you don’t trust your kids, it’s that you don’t trust unknown people on the internet. You want to protect them because you love them. Share stories such as Kacie’s story and be sure your kids know that these things DO happen. A LOT.
- Know where your kids are going, who they are with, when they can be expected home
- Get your kids to trust their instincts. If someone or something doesn’t seem right when they are chatting, it probably isn’t. Have your kids report suspicious behaviors to you and praise them for doing so.
The following are some additional resources that may be valuable to you in learning to protect your kids from internet predators. Best of luck and be SAFE.
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