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Chapter Twenty: What to Do if You Suspect Your Child is Communicating with an Online Predator
Nowadays with the increase in popularity of social media, social networking and online chat rooms, the incidence of sexual predators lurking is rising exponentially. These predators are becoming sneakier in their attempts to lure children into their evil schemes. This chapter will explore the different warning signs and what to do if you suspect that your child is communicating with an online predator. This includes preventative techniques, next steps, and lowering the chances of an incident recurring.
Watch for changes in your child’s behaviors
Your child’s behaviors will almost certainly change if they begin communicating with an online predator. Watch for these changes and know what to do when they appear. Most often, the amount of time a child spends online greatly increases and the hours that your child is online may be abnormal. For example, a 2013 study concluded that the average amount of time kids and teens spend online is about 3.2 hours a day, for both watching television and social networking. Given that this is just an average, and different kids spend different amounts of time online, parents should be alert and pay attention to how much time their child spends online. If parents only allow certain amounts of time during certain hours of the day, they should frequently check up on their children to see if they are accessing the computer during abnormal times of day/night as if they are trying to hide something, or if they are spending so much time online that it actually interferes with their studies or family life.
Phone calls from strange numbers
Pay attention and be wary if your child is receiving phone calls from strange numbers at odd hours during the day/night, and if your child talks to them on the phone for an excessive amount of time. Ask your child who this person is and how they came to know them – if they are from school or someone they met online. If the child gets nervous or defensive about this person, it is essential that parents sit down and talk to their kids about the dangers of continuing a relationship with them. Explaining to them this person’s capabilities of identity theft, kidnapping, assault, and rape can help bring them to truly understand how dangerous their actions really are. Most importantly, parents should try not to get mad at their children or accuse them of the problem. Many children get pulled into these online relationships because of serious issues at home and the Internet acts as their escape. So fueling their insecurities with more accusations can actually do more harm than good in the end.
Gifts and other warning signs
Other warning signs of online predators include, if your child begins receiving an "influx of cash" or gifts delivered to your home or sent through their email. With these types of situations, it can be helpful to check their computer and see who they are receiving these gifts from, and how often your children communicates with them. Check to see if your address is provided and available on the Internet by typing it in on Google or any other search engine, and check to see if it comes up on a keyword search on your child’s computer. Do some research before you panic or approach your child about a situation like this because it is not always what you think – although it is important to stick with your gut feeling and never let something as serious as this go unnoticed. Do a little bit of investigating to track where these gifts are coming from and why they are coming. Look through your child’s email and chat room and see if you can trace where these usernames belong, i.e. if they give name to any area or restaurants, or if you can trace where the IP address originates. Once you begin to have a hunch and have something to revert back to when trying to prove your point, it is important to approach your child cautiously about their online habits and talk to them about what they are doing. Kids who are deeply engaged in an online relationship are oftentimes defensive and can become aggressive when forced to talk about their online behavior and who they are talking to. Approach them with hard evidence of your suspicions and stay calm when talking to them without accusing them of wrongdoing.
Many children tend to switch the screen on the computer once they notice someone coming near them, as if they are doing something they are not supposed to, and are trying to hide it from others. This can be a warning sign of your child engaged in chat rooms and/or viewing pornography – both of which must be confronted and stopped immediately. If you notice this type of behavior, do not stand idly by – stop and ask your child what they are doing online. Make sure to not take an accusatory tone, keep it casual, something as simple as checking up on them, talking to them about what is going on in their lives. This can also be an opportunity for you to talk to your child about school, friends, or any worries they have and for you to express the love and support all children need. Have a seat next to them, ask them if anything is bothering them, and how they are doing with their general well-being. Ask them about their friends, and ask if you can see their friend’s profiles on social media sites just to "see what they are up to." This can initiate a conversation and encourage open dialogue between you and your child. If your child becomes defensive and angry with you, do not come back at them, but take this as a cue to watch for other warning signs and see if their behavior changes. This could be a sign of not just a toxic online relationship, but of more serious issues going on in their fragile lives at this age.
Though teenagers tend to go through stages in their life that cause them to seem to be annoyed and/or mad at anything and everything, many of these cases are the result of social media and online predators that tend to set a wedge between kids and their families. While some teenage antics may be to blame for the separation of teenagers, it is becoming more and more apparent that social media and its consequences are causing teenagers to become detached and irritated with their home life for no obvious reason.
Not only does social media, lower children’s self-esteem, but computer sex offenders and predators spend a lot of time attempting to drive a wedge between children and their families. They will accentuate any minor problems at home that the child might have. Social media tends to be a double-edged sword. While some kids and teenagers use it to connect with their friends more easily for entertainment and news worthy purposes, it is known to lower the self-esteem of kids who may not be as "popular" and "cool/fun" as others pretend to be on the Internet. Due to this, teenagers become removed from friends and family, and most often turn to dangerous coping mechanisms, namely physical harm or finding solace with an online predator. If you begin to notice that your child is becoming more irritated and withdrawn from family or friends, and spending an unusual amount of time online, it is a good idea to begin monitoring their computer and talk to them about what is happening in their lives – establishing communication, open-dialogue and a support system. Teenagers may be hesitant at first to open up and talk about personal issues, but if they are provided with support they can start to express themselves. Stress to your children that you will always be there to talk to them, and that they should never turn to the computer for help. The people they meet online do not actually care about their well-being, instead the sexual predators are only there for their own self-interests. If they are having a hard time with friends, help them get through the situation by arranging family outings, setting times to "power down" all electronics, have dinners together and sharing each other’s company. This may be the most powerful tool any parent can use to get closer with their child and create long-standing and trusting relationships to keep them happy and out of harm’s way.
Lastly, do not be afraid to alert authorities if you strongly suspect your child is talking to an online sexual predator. Also, tell your child not to be scared of telling the police if they suspect they are being harassed by an online predator. Remind them that they don’t even have to say their name to authorities or tell you before they alert police, to eliminate some of the guilt or fear they may have about this kind of situation. Give them opportunities to open up to you, and the resources they need to contact the appropriate people. Remember, neither you nor your child will get in trouble for something like this. Reiterate this information to them as well, and they will more than likely be more inclined to report such instances.
It can be a good idea to create and maintain a makeshift "list" of pledges between you and your child before they start browsing online and using the Internet. The following are just some suggestions for you and your child to go over together.
- Insist on creating a list of safe and approved websites to visit while online. Leave the list on or near the monitor so that they serve as a constant reminder for children.
- In addition to the list of websites, set up rules for the length of time allowed online.
- This rule can be set daily, or at a fixed rate.
- Compromise with each other on the amount of time allowed to browse the Web. Do not access it during any other times without prior approval.
- Discuss the consequences if the rules are not followed and the results of those actions.
- Explore those websites together. Learn about them and understand what your child does, what his or her interests are, and what types of people they talk to, etc.
- Keep the computer in a neutral place in the house.
- With the computer in a mutually shared space, the chances of kids getting hurt by online predators drastically decreases and kids are more inclined to actually spend less time on the computer and more time participating in family and/or extracurricular activities.
- Have them make a pledge to never give out any personal information including:
- Telephone number
- Where your parents work
- Parent’s work address or telephone number
- Credit card information
- Agree to stay within the boundaries of the aforementioned safe sites and never visit other websites unless approved.
- Promise to only use kid-friendly and parent-approved search engines, even when completing homework.
- Tell your child to never start talking to someone they met online, and to never, ever meet-up with them in person. They are most likely not who they say they are.
- Tell your kids to let you know if they begin to make new "friends" online.
- Tell them to only add people to their friends list if they have met them in person before.
- Tell them that may never, ever agree to any in-person meet ups with someone they have never met.
- Understand that mobile devices and tablets now have much of the same capabilities as computers do. It is important to have all of these pledges and more, in regards to computer usage, translate into mobile device and tablet usage.
- It can actually be more important with these devices to NOT give out ANY bit of personal information because with their GPS tracking capabilities, it is now easier than ever to track and pinpoint someone’s exact location at any time.
- Have your kids agree to never create usernames or online accounts without your permission. Help your kids find safe and suitable usernames.
Teach your kids to be smart online, and to not do anything that they would be scared to talk about after. Remember, having set rules and open dialogue can do wonders in protecting you and your family. Bear in mind that as parents you need to support your kids, so that they are not afraid to share their fears with you.