By now, every parent knows kids can meet sexual predators on the Internet, and most parents think they’ve protected their children by telling them not to give out their names online. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The Internet has emboldened sexual predators. Instead of meeting kids in places where there’s a danger of being spotted by a vigilant adult, predators can approach kids in cyberspace with minimal risk. Predators can also find unprecedented support for their interests in newsgroups devoted to topics like "man/boy love" or "child rape". As a result, online predators are increasingly sophisticated about luring children into sexually charged relationships. Even kids who have the good sense not to meet a predator in person may be drawn into connections with perverse adults who send lewd messages, supply pornography, or engage them in explicit and sometimes deviant cybersex. The long-term challenge for parents is to help kids develop the self-esteem and values that will make them less vulnerable to seduction in all forms. In the short term, here are specific strategies to protect kids from unwanted or unwholesome sexual experiences online:
—Keep the computer in a family space. Predators are much more likely to cultivate relationships with kids who use a computer alone in a bedroom. In fact, that’s one of the first questions they typically ask kids.
—Limit time spent online. The more time kids spend online, the more likely they are to engage in risky behaviors. One study found girls who were online more than 12 hours a week were seven times more likely to have given out personal information, exchanged photos, and even arranged face-to-face meetings with people met online.
—Find out what your kids really do online. Ask, "What did you do online today?" as often as you ask, "What did you do in school?" If you don’t understand what your child is talking about, ask for a demonstration. In particular, tell your child you want to know about instant messages and email from strangers.
—Make strict stranger rules. Make sharp distinctions between going online with people your child knows in real life and those he or she "meets" in cyberspace. Children under 12 should never interact with strangers online unless they have explicit permission from parents. Because they are inexperienced and trusting, "newbies" are easy targets for predators.
—Play 'what-if games'. With middle schoolers, use news stories about online crime to help your child think through what they would do in similar circumstances. Predators, for example, often target kids who are having problems with their parents. Ask your child: "What if you had a problem you didn’t want to discuss with me? Who could you talk to?" Come up with a list of other trustworthy people your child knows such as counselors, coaches, teachers, relatives, or ministers/rabbis.
—Go beyond the name rule. Explain to your child that predators use clues dropped in chatrooms to profile kids. Brainstorm about the kind of information that shouldn’t be shared with strangers directly or indirectly. In addition to name, address, phone number and password, the list should include names (and nicknames) of teachers, family members, friends, sports teams and pets, as well as details about your child’s daily schedule.
—Reiterate the risks of meeting people met online. Incredibly, teens who realize people can lie online often decide that meeting a person is the best way to find out who they really are. Talk often to your teen about how dangerous it is to arrange a meeting with a stranger. Point out that people who ask them to keep secrets almost never have their best interests in mind.
—Talk to older teens about cybersex. Some adolescents — and even parents — think it’s safer to explore sex online where there’s no risk of pregnancy, rape, or sexually transmitted diseases. Difficult as it may be to talk about sexuality with teens, parents must point out that online sexuality rarely involves genuine intimacy or respect, much less love. Teens also need to know that some experts feel exposure to online sex, which is usually crude and often degrading, may create lasting images that make it more difficult to form fulfilling relationships later in life.
—Let children know they won’t be blamed for problems. Kids often don’t report online seductions to adults because they feel guilty. Be sure your child understands that the adult predator is always at fault. Kids should also know that predators may try to blackmail children by threatening to harm family members if they tell. Reassure your child she’ll be rewarded, not punished, for having the maturity and savvy to spot and report a potential predator.
—Report cyberseduction. It is a crime to send children pornography or entice them for sexual purposes. Reporting criminal behavior will help your child feel less like a victim and may prevent harm to another child. In addition to your local police department, reports can be filed at CyberTipline (www.cybertipline.com).