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Virtual Predators: The Importance of Teaching Internet Safety

With the increased use of the Internet and other types of technology, sexual predators are now a very real threat to children. The Crimes Against Children Research Center says that 4 percent of the teenagers who use the Internet regularly have received aggressive sexual advances from adults. Twenty-five percent of children and teens have been exposed to online material that could be considered pornographic. These predators target children of all ages by using manipulation and deceit to gain trust.

Predators use a set of techniques known as the grooming process to develop relationships with unsuspecting children. Some of these techniques include searching social network profiles for pictures of children, using chat rooms that target children with specific hobbies and interests, showing interest in a child’s activities, and paying a child compliments. Predators usually look for children who are lonely, sad, or vulnerable, as these children are easier to manipulate. Victims of bullying, children who are physically or emotionally abused, and kids who have problems at school are typically more vulnerable than others, so they are often targets for online predators.

The popularity of social media networks such as Facebook and MySpace makes it even easier for predators to target children. Most children do not know about the importance of online privacy, so they post public profiles that contain their ages, hobbies, and other personal information. Many children even post information about where they attend school and where they spend time on the weekends. All of this information helps predators through the grooming process, as a predator can use a child’s hobbies to strike up a conversation. Some predators even watch their intended victims by showing up at their schools. Posting photos on social networks also increases the risk that a child will be targeted by an online predator. Without careful cropping, a photo can show someone’s home address or the license plate of a teenager’s car. This is information predators can use to get close to their victims and even approach them in person.

Once a predator has gained a child’s trust, he or she may send nude photos via e-mail or instant messenger. Some predators send gifts to make their victims feel that they owe them something. In some cases, a predator will ask a child to call a toll-free number so that a record of their communication does not show up on a telephone bill. When victims try to stop communicating with predators, the predators may threaten to tell people about their relationship or report them for viewing nude photos. This scares the victims into thinking they have to keep talking to the predators.

Parents and guardians need to take an active role in protecting their children from Internet predators. The Crimes Against Children Research Center reports that only 33 percent of households have any kind of filtering software in place to protect kids from unwanted advances. Installing this type of software can prevent kids from viewing obscene material and visiting websites that are a haven for predators. It is also possible to use software to block children from accessing certain websites. Parents can configure the software to block pornographic websites, chat rooms, and websites that have content that is not suitable for kids and teens. Discussing the importance of online privacy is also important. Parents should instruct kids to never talk with anyone they do not know. They should also encourage children to report any unwanted advances from strangers. Parents can take additional precautions monitoring voicemail messages and utilizing call center and live answering services for advice.

There are several warning signs that may indicate that a child has been in contact with a predator. If a child suddenly has several expensive items, this can indicate that an online predator has been sending mail and gifts. Unexplained charges on a telephone bill should be addressed immediately. They can indicate that a child has been talking with an online predator. If a child quickly closes a browser screen when someone else enters the room, this may indicate that the child was talking with a predator or viewing obscene material. Children may withdraw from other activities in order to spend more time on the phone or online.

If a child reports unwanted advances from an online predator, parents should take quick action. Reporting a predator may prevent him or her from contacting other unsuspecting children. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children works with several law enforcement agencies and the United States Postal Service to stop online exploitation. They run a free and confidential tipline for anyone who wants to report suspicions regarding predator activity or online pornography. Report any suspicious activity by calling 1-800-843-5678. Internet users can also visit the NCMEC’s website at www.missingkids.com.

These resources offer more information about online predators and explain how parents can protect their kids.

Written by: 
Jacob C. Herman
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