If you were picking your adolescent up from school one day and noticed a 50-year-old stranger in the bushes snapping pictures of her as she walked by, what would you do? You'd become incensed, right? You'd involve the police and demand something be done. In the days and weeks following that incident, you'd probably start walking her to the fence around the schoolyard and waiting until she was safely inside—at least until you knew for sure the creep was locked up.
A child predator needs nothing more than a computer to gain access into a child's life. There is no fence to keep him out or monitoring in place other than your alert attention and whatever protections you instill. Recent studies show that one in seven youngsters has experienced unwanted sexual solicitations online, and one in three has been exposed to unwanted sexual material online.
We've all seen the sting-operation television shows. We watch in complete fascination as 40-year-old doctors, pastors, teachers, show up to have sex with 13-year-old girls. But in case you're unaware of the types of Internet activity that lead up to these liaisons, take a look at the following small portion of a real chat log used by Perverted Justice for Dateline NBC's To Catch a Predator:
talldreamy_doc: hi how are you
crazy_frazy2005: fabu. u?
crazy_frazy2005: ur a dr?
crazy_frazy2005: what kind?
crazy_frazy2005: like... old people?
crazy_frazy2005: i love old people
talldreamy_doc: thats nice
talldreamy_doc: where do you live?
crazy_frazy2005: near lakeville. u?
talldreamy_doc: san Francisco
talldreamy_doc: you have a picture..i can share mine
This man, talldreamy_doc, is Maurice Walin, 49. He was a doctor, but is now a convicted sex offender after this chat took a very steamy turn and he pursued this girl even to the point of going to her house for the purpose of having sex with her. Thankfully, this was part of a sting operation and Maurice was taken off cyberspace before he managed to carry out his plans with this girl or any other young lady—maybe your teen. If you or your kids think that nothing can happen to them online, that it only happens to others, or that adults exaggerate…think again!
What makes that much worse is that 75 percent of children studied were willing to share personal information with strangers in an online setting. They feel safe there—which means we as parents and as a society have not done our job communicating the dangers.
The problem is that so many of our children are bored. They're home alone in the hours between the end of the school day and when Mom and Dad get home from work. They feel safe in their homes and anonymous on the Internet. They have no idea that there is a 50-percent chance that the stranger they're talking to in the chat room is a predator with malicious intentions toward them.
Tell me, without any preparation or understanding about how predators work, could you be absolutely certain that your teen wouldn't have gotten sucked into that conversation too? Bored, home alone after school feeling safe in the confines of her own home. Please believe that it's possible. Even probable without proper preparation.
Parents, you might not like me very much when I finish this paragraph, but I hope you'll understand my motives. If the computer has become a babysitter or a time waster for the teens and preteens in your home, then you are too busy or too distracted from your role as parent.
You need to clear out some activities and responsibilities to spend more time with your kids. Rather than in a chat room being targeted by a predator, they should be at the bowling alley or the miniature golf course with you. Time is all it takes: time for the hard discussions, time to hang out and play together, time to show what's most important in life.
There are plenty of signs to watch for that can alert you to the possibility that your child may be the target of an online predator.
• Long hours online
• Phone calls from people you've never heard of
• Gifts from strange people showing up
• Snapping off the computer in a rush
• Mood changes, defensiveness
• Change in sleep patterns
• Reluctance to discuss online activities
• Demanding more privacy, acting outraged when it's "violated"
• Deleted Internet history
• Sudden password changes
• Taking the laptop from room to room rather than just leaving it in one place
• Change in dress, diet, appearance
• No time for friends
• Unexplained sleepiness—possibly due to after-hours chats
• Have viewed pornography on the Internet and/or saved it onto their computer
• Uses the Internet at an external location like a local library or another person's home.
Keep your eyes and ears open. Listen to your instincts. You can catch this early and prevent all sorts of tragic possibilities if you're alert.
If any underage people in your home have unrestricted, private access to the Internet, I implore you to change that.
You might as well put up a billboard with your child's picture and say, "Here she is. This is her address. Come get her."
And, think about this carefully. Are there devices that access the Internet that you've forgotten about? Smartphones? Hand-held video games? X-box? Playstation? Gain control of anything and everything that links your teens to the cyber world.
It's important to remind your child to never give out personal information such as a photo, their name, home address, and school name or telephone number online; to keep email addresses private. It's also important to forward all obscene or threatening messages you or your kids get to your Internet service provider, and to contact your local law enforcement agency or the FBI if your child has received pornography via the Internet or has been the target of an online sex offender. Be willing to stand up and say something if you witness unsafe behavior in other teens and encourage your teens to do the same.
If You Think Your Child Has Talked to a Predator
When it comes to the safety of your children, it is always better to be safe than sorry. If you have even the slightest feeling that they might have communicated with an Internet predator, you need to investigate. Be sure to save and print e-mails written by a suspected predator. Check the caller ID on your telephone and record any unfamiliar phone numbers that have called your home. Finally, you need to contact the police.
"You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance" (Ps. 32:7).
I'm not able to handle this one alone, Lord. The dangers that lurk behind the computer monitor are too dark for me to face alone. Please help me. Help me to be the parent I need to be, to make the time it's going to take to keep my family safe, and to be wise about all of the activities in my home. Help me to do the difficult things in the face of my teen's frustrations and confusion—let any rules I implement be received well and honored. In the end, it's about the safety of my kids, Lord. So please protect them and use me in every way possible in the carrying out of that task. Amen.
Adapted from Hot Buttons: Internet Edition. Copyright © 2012 by Nicole O'Dell. Used by permission of Kregel Publications.