In my Cyber Safety parent workshop, I ask parents where is the safest place for their child to be? After asking thousands of parents this question, I always hear the same answer: In their home. What is the fear of allowing their child unsupervised outside the home? The general concern among parents is the possibility of their child meeting someone they don’t know, someone dangerous. Although this possibility does exist, the rate of violent crime across the country has dropped significantly in the last twenty years. The chance that a teen will ever come in physical contact with a sexual predator in their neighborhood is very low; let alone being snatched off the street—an occurrence that is extremely rare. When we look again at the picture of a child sitting alone, safely in his room, we see something new. The fear of their child meeting someone they don’t know is missed placed. The child sitting on their bed now has a mobile device in their hands with Internet and social media access. Our social media connected teen is now not only exposed to the people in their neighborhood, or just the people in the United States. She is now sharing intimate details about herself to potentially 2.5 billion people on the Internet. This translates to millions of sexual predators who have access to your child in your own home.
In December of 2014, the Cleveland Police department reported an all too common story of a ten-year-old girl who was groomed by sexual predators through her iPad.
The girl was given the tablet to help with her schoolwork, but unfortunately, the mobile device was used for social media applications like Snapchat and Skype. After about a month of unmonitored use, her mother checked the device and was horrified to discover that her daughter had been targeted by at least 16 men.
The ten-year-old schoolgirl was first contacted by a man on Snapchat, who won her trust before leading the conversation on to sex. Her parents believe that he must have passed her details on to others. Predators who try to sexually exploit children for the purpose of producing child pornography often share that pornography, or access to the child, with other predators. The predator’s methodology was a textbook use of social media to manipulate and exploit this young girl.
The anonymity and the global nature of the Internet make identifying and prosecuting these predators difficult. The pedophiles in this case are likely based in the UK and other countries overseas. Police Detectives from Cleveland Police are liaising with Snapchat and Skype in the hope of tracking them down.
Her father said that his daughter told many of the men that she was
ten years old, but that it only encouraged them to ask for explicit images. In one case they begged her to undress. When she refused the predator said, “Your parents won’t come into your room in the time it will take to get out of your pajamas.” Her father added that the most frightening exchange he read was one in which a man offered to transfer his daughter money so that she might travel to meet up with him. On another occasion, one man begged: ‘Open cam baby open’ and added: ‘plzzzzzz I like sex. What problem r u no interest to sex.’ (Dailymail, December 27, 2014)
These parents believed that they took “all sensible safety measures to protect her.” They turned on the iPad’s parental settings to filter content. Unfortunately, they didn’t go far enough. In this article, I will outline how online predators try to contact and exploit children and give you some truly sensible safety measures to keep your children safe.
To begin, we must understand who the enemy is. The online predator/pedophile is networked with millions of other like-minded individuals who share their techniques and experiences with each other. They know how to identify the most vulnerable victims and what techniques to use to groom children into sending nude images or videos to them. In some cases the accomplished pedophile can manipulate the child, build a relationship, resulting in the child voluntarily meeting or running away with him.
To keep your child safe from these predators, we need to have a good working knowledge of how they operate:
- Online predators look for children who are emotionally vulnerable or who do not appear to have a stable home life. The most vulnerable are children who are dealing with a broken home, runaways, or who are in the Child Welfare System. Parents must be aware that every child is potentially vulnerable, no matter their family composition or socio-economic level. Children share their thoughts, feelings, likes, and dislikes freely on social media. It does not take the predator long to discover who is having problems at home or problems with key relationships in their lives.
- The predator listens and sympathizes with the child. These predators are skillful manipulators and the children that they prey on do not have the maturity or life experience to counter their advances. They tell the child what the child wants to hear, not what they need to hear. When a teen laments about being grounded for a week by their parent, the predator tells them that their parent was wrong or stupid, and they should have the freedom to do what they want. The predator begins building an us-against-them relationship that drives a wedge between the child and their parents.
- The predator intensifies the relationship by seducing the child. The seduction phase of the manipulation is key to the pedophile’s success. The predator further grooms the child through attention, flattery, affection, kindness, and even gifts. He will make the child feel “special.” Initial target selection for this phase is very important. Children who are emotionally vulnerable are looking for love and acceptance. The pedophile knows that a properly manipulated and groomed child will not care that he is older. He does not have to coerce the child into sending him nude images or meet him. What makes this so dangerous that the victim, the child, helps conceal the relationship from their parents.
- The predator introduces sex into the conversation. Depending on the progression of the third phase, the introduction of sex into the conversation may be gradual or done rapidly.
Truly sensible safety precautions are not one-dimensional. All good security systems are a multi-layered approach. We cannot reduce the risk for our children to zero, but with the suggestions that you will find below, or in the Cyber Safety Cop Workshop, you will have gone a long way to keeping your child safe online. Think of the following suggestions as layers of armor. Depending on the type of attack one or more layers may be needed:
- Talk to your child about cyber safety. Nearly eighty percent of teens said that they did not have parental rules about Internet use, and only eleven percent told their parents about either being bullied or seeing something disturbing online. (ncpc.org, 2015) Having an open conversation with your child about potential threats, and what to do if they encounter a problem is the key safety factor in your child’s life. Use the Cyber Safety Cop Internet Usage Contract to set boundaries and expectations for their online activity.
- Be judicious when giving your child access to social media. The above story about the 10-year-old girl would have never occurred if the parents followed the social media app’s minimum age requirement in the User Agreement. Snapchat requires users to be at least thirteen years old.
- Turn on parental controls. Use the device’s parental controls to filter content and to lock out their ability to download applications without your permission.
- Physically search your child’s phone and all social media activity. Take your child’s device from out of their hands, and while they are watching you, go through all their text messages, browser history, and social media images/posts.
- Install parental control applications. We highly recommend Bark. See the link below.
The above safety suggestions are a good start to creating a safe and enjoyable environment for your child online. If you would like to learn more about how to keep your child safe from cyberbullying, online predators, sexting, and other online threats, I invite you to attend one of my two, four, or eight-hour Cyber Safety workshops. Please visit the event CALENDAR to find a workshop near you. You can also CONTACT me to learn how you can host a workshop in your area.