Helping Children Know The Risks Of Chat Rooms
Much has been written about dangers on the Internet, but if your child is going to get in trouble online, chances are that it will be because of something that happens in a chat room.
Don't be alarmed. Millions of children engage in chat and instant messaging every day and the overwhelming majority are not victimized. Still, of the 32,000 leads reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's (NCMEC) CyberTipLine (www.cybertipline.com), 3,262 are ``online enticement'' cases and the vast majority of those started out in a chat room, according to Ruben Rodriquez, director of NCMEC's Exploited Child Unit. However, the fact that they represent a tiny fraction of kids online is of no conciliation to those children or their families.
(I have helped the non-profit organization develop some of its online safety materials and, last week, was elected to its board of directors.)
Most of these cases, says Rodriquez, involve a similar methodology. The perpetrator lurks in a public chat room looking for a child he thinks is vulnerable. I use ``he'' because most sexual predators are male; however, there have been cases of adult women using the Internet to solicit underage boys and girls. When he finds someone who seems vulnerable, he invites the child into a private area of the chat room to get better acquainted. Next comes private chat via an instant message service followed by e-mail, phone conversations and, finally, a face-to-face meeting.
The practice isn't unique to the United States. In a separate interview, Nigel Williams, Director of London-based Childnet International (www.childnet-int.org), painted nearly an identical picture based on his organization's work around the globe. The United Kingdom recently experienced its first reported case of a child that was seduced into a sexual relationship by an adult encountered online. The girl is 13 and the man -- who is now serving a five-year jail sentence, is 33.
In this UK case, the initial contact took place in a chat room and was followed by a daily exchange of e-mail, including some in which the man sent the girl sexually explicit photographs. There were also regular conversations on a mobile phone and, finally, a series of meetings at his apartment, which eventually led to sexual intercourse. After the third meeting, the girl confided in her parents who contacted the police. As is often the case, force wasn't involved. The vulnerable girl submitted to the man's advances.
Children who are relatively quiet in online chats are especially targeted, says Rodriquez. ``Predators like to go after kids who tend to express agreement in chat rooms but not say a lot because they know that these kids are vulnerable.'' It's like children who are on the sidelines on playgrounds. The ones playing the game are already getting recognition. The ones that aren't are more likely to be lonely and happy for whatever attention they can get.
And, of course, the predator doesn't start by sexually propositioning a child. His first tactic is to create a comfort level, typically by posing as a young person about the same age as the intended victim. Early in the process, the predator might even send the child a photograph of ``himself'' to reassure the child. Of course, it's not really a photo of the person engaged in the chat but of an attractive child about the same age as the victim -- possibly scanned from a magazine -- often engaged in a happy social activity with parents, friends or siblings.
Sexual predators, according to Rodriquez, are often very skilled at their crimes. ``They know how to manipulate children, he said. ``They know their likes and dislikes and they know what buttons to push.'' And they're patient. It sometimes takes months to turn a contact from a chat room into a sexual victim. And, even though these online relationships typically begin with the child believing that he or she is communicating with another child, it's not uncommon for the predator to eventually let the child know that he is ``a bit older'' than he might have first indicated. Using phrases like, ``how do you feel about a `big brother' or an `uncle,' '' the adult prepares the child for the eventual meeting where his age will become obvious. Rodriquez said that some kids will cut off the relationship the moment they realize they're dealing with an adult, but others will be flattered by it. Besides, it's not uncommon for predators to be attempting to seduce several children at a time so even if the kid goes away, they have other victims lined up.
In some cases, the child continues to believe that the person on the other end of the chat sessions and e-mail is a child up until the meeting. The adult might tell the unsuspecting child, ``My dad will pick you up,'' so the will feels safe getting into the adult's car.
Williams cautions parents that the chat itself is only a meeting point. In many cases, the child and the perpetrator are together in the chat room for a very short time and continue the conversation via e-mail and other venues, including mobile phones. In the UK and Europe, it's very common for teenagers to have cell phones and, unlike the United States, many of those phones have short message system (SMS) capabilities.
``It's very popular,'' said Williams, ``for kids to exchange messages on their cell phones.'' Williams worries that would-be pedophiles will use the same technology to reach out to kids. Another problem with cell phones is that kids can use them away from home where parents have no clue as to who they're talking with.
If you have kids who chat online -- and if you're a parent you probably do -- you might be wondering how you can protect your kids. The answer, says Rodriquez and other safety experts, is to try to keep in close touch with what your kids are doing online. Be especially wary if they always keep the door shut or turn off the monitor the moment you walk in the door. Still, that might not be a sign of a serious problem, but of your child's desire to maintain privacy while chatting with other kids.
Williams, the director of Childnet International, urges parents to talk with their children about Internet safety. Your kids might not like the conversation, but it's worth having and worth repeating once in awhile, even if your kids tell you that they're tired of hearing about it.
Childnet operates an excellent Web site (www.chatdanger.com) that
provides parents with advice on how to recognize and prevent problems
that can arise in chat rooms. Although it's aimed primarily at the UK and
Europe, there is plenty of good advice for those of us on this side of
More to See: