Where Kids Play, Predators Prey
It’s an old saying, but a good one: “where kids play, predators prey.” Before the advent of the Internet, we thought of pedophiles and predators as having access to children at park playgrounds, the mall and roller-skating rinks. But today, kids are playing and socializing online with their peers, and predators and pedophiles are utilizing technology to target kids in their new, virtual playgrounds. One of the attractions of the Internet is the anonymity of the user, and this is why it can be so dangerous.
Offline, pedophiles typically operate in isolation. Never before have pedophiles had the opportunity to communicate so freely and directly with each other as they do online. Their communication on the Internet provides validation, or virtual validation, for their behavior. They share their conquests, real and imagined. They discuss ways to contact and lure children online and exchange tips on seduction techniques. They are using the technology of the Internet to train and encourage each other to act out sexually with children. The Internet also serves as a tool for predators to exchange tips on the avoidance of law enforcement detection.
We’ve known since the advent of the Internet that children are most vulnerable to receiving a sexual solicitation in online chat rooms, but in a recent report, of an estimated 7010 total arrests for all types of Internet-related sex crimes against minors in 2006 found that 2,322, or 33% of those cases involved use of a social networking site. In almost 50% of victim-involved social networking site cases, social networking sites were utilized to initiate a relationship. Social networking sites were also utilized as a form of communication in 72% of victim-involved SNS cases. Additionally, offenders used their victim’s social networking sites to get information about their victims—including their likes and interests (82%), their home or school information (65%), to look at pictures of the victims (81%), and to figure out their whereabouts at a specific time (26%).
While social networking sites are being used for Internet-initiated crimes against youth, it is also important to note that the study found that online communications between the offenders and victims usually involved several mediums, including chat rooms, instant messaging, video communication, as well as text messaging through cell phones. In SNS-related arrests that involved an undercover agent, the majority of cases were still initiated in chat rooms. And, at the time of this study (2006), SNSs were not the most common venues for meeting offenders (still 61% met first in chat rooms or other spaces online). Interestingly, however, cases that involved SNSs in some capacity were more likely to result in face-to-face meetings than cases not involving SNSs—the study suggests that it is possible that aspects of SNSs themselves may contribute to this, by providing so much information to both the victim and offender, the victim may feel “safer” in arranging such a meeting.
As parents, it is important to remember that social networking sites and other online spaces have many, positive benefits for socializing and creating for kids, but these sites can be used to target teens as well. For our kids today (and for many adults!) the people they communicate with on social networking sites, play online, interactive multi-player games with, or follow on Twitter can feel like “real” friends. Regardless of how much your child feels they “know” about someone online, they should never meet face-to-face with that person without you with them.
As Alicia Kozakiewicz, Surivivor of a Sexual Predator, explained in our Internet Safety 101 teaching series for parents, “online, it’s really, really hard to define a stranger, because a lot of the time, you’ll talk to your real friend online from school, and then they introduce you to their friend from another school. Then that person will introduce you to their friend, and then you are in an [online] “room” of people that you don’t really know, but you all feel connected because you have that common string, that common friend… so it’s not enough to just give your child that advice “don’t talk to stranger”. (You can view Alicia’s story in our 101 video, down the page.)
Communication is key in protecting children from online exploitation. One way to keep children safer is to supervise their online activities or limit their access to sites that can facilitate online interaction with people they don’t know and trust in real life. If you allow your children access to these sites, you should discuss Internet safety often. Monitor children’s Internet use: ask them what sites they visit and to show you any profiles they may have posted online.
As we suggest in our Internet Safety 101 program:
Parents need to:
- Pay attention to what your kids are doing online, and ask your child non-threatening questions.
- Avoid over-reacting if your kids have been talking to people they don’t know online or if they admit that they’ve come across a dangerous or tricky situation online.
Ask “Has an online stranger…
- Tried to befriend you? If so, how do you know this person?”
- Talked to you about sex?”
- Asked you for personal information?”
- Asked you for pictures? Sent you pictures?”
- Said anything to make you feel uncomfortable?”
- Offered to send you gifts?”
For more about protecting kids online, see our Internet Safety 101 Rules ‘N Tools®