Just mention two words: “Online Predator” to a parent and be prepared for a full-blown panic attack. Few things are more terrifying than envisioning our kids being recruited for sexual relationships — and to top it off by some force we cannot even see. Though we can ever fully protect our kids, this week a study was released that gives parents the critical information that just may help us stop the unthinkable.
The study was conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The researchers extensively interviewed 3,000 kids 10 to 17 years old who are Internet users as well as 612 federal, state and local law enforcement officials. The data was analyzed uncovering surprising data that every parent needs to know.
Biggest surprise: These sexual offenders shatter the online-predator mold. For the most part they are not molesters who use deception to assault our kids but instead they target children who are more vulnerable. (Reread that last line carefully. It provides insightful information). Though no child is one hundred percent safe, some children are far more at risk—and ones we need to keep a closer eye on. Here are some of the highlights from the study and a few recommendations to take a more preventative approach to stopping this horrific crime:
The most vulnerable youth to online predators are those with lower-self esteem. Those predators specifically prey on kids who lack strong identity or have a weaker social network of their own. Those youth most at risk:
Have past histories of sexual or physical abuse
Engage in patterns of risky off- or online behavior
Talk online about sex
Divulge personal information online
Do not have strong, healthy relationships with their parents
Are boys who are gay or questioning their sexual orientations
The predator looks for kids already vulnerable and then entices them by offering a romantic relationship. At the beginning stage the teen sees this online stranger as someone reaching out to them as a friend and a person they want to get to know. They view the overture as someone offering an adventure (exactly what risk-takers relish) or love (the very thing the child may be missing in his or her own life).
Using those social networks like Facebook or MySpace does not make kids more susceptible to online predators. What does increase a child’s danger: Frequenting chatrooms, giving out personal information and talking online to unknown people about sex.
Here are a few important take away points from this important research:
• First: Talk, talk, talk to your child about healthy relationships vs. unhealthy relationships. Then talk again. Kids needs to understand the difference between those two.
• Second: Watch out for those chatrooms. Tell your child that if you ever walk by that computer and see him cover up that screen, the computer plug will be pulled and he loses the privilege. End of argument.
• Third: Set up clear rules about that computer. Here are a few essentials: Your computer must be in a central place where you can touch it at all times. Your child should never, ever give any personal information including her name, address, phone number, password, school name, birthdate, town, etc.
• Fourth: Parents get savvier about that computer. Know how to put up filters and blocks and how to know which sites your child has been frequenting. If you don’t know sign up for a course or start doing your own Google searches. Stay one step ahead of your child!
• Fifth: Nurture your child’s self-esteem and identity.Watch out if your child is having emotinal difficulties. And seek the help of a mental health professional. Don’t wait. Please. I’ve written a number of blogs about this one, and it continues to come up as a red flag.
Do know that the more involved you are in your child’s life, the less likely (according to this research) your child will be victimized. These are scarier times to be raising kids, but if we stay a bit more computer savvy, set clear rules about that computer, and more involved in our kids lives we can reduce the online predator risk and our panic attacks.
All the best for you and your family!