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How to Protect Your Children from Online Predators

Sadly, children can find themselves in danger without even leaving the privacy of their home. In today’s internet age, predators can lurk online, preying on innocent children who browse the web. The anonymity the internet offers makes identifying friend from foe virtually impossible; making online predators not just hard to pinpoint, but also difficult to capture. It therefore pays for every parent to know how to protect his or her children from online predators.

What dangers can find our children online?

Child abusers have been known to use the internet to pick vulnerable children to victimize. Children need not visit sexually explicit sites to be targeted; abusers can use chatrooms, internet forums, social networking sites (most notably Facebook), and instant message services to initiate contact and establish a relationship. Abuse exists in a range; some online predators harass their victims verbally, others flash sexually explicit content, and there are those who invite minors to engage in sexual activities either online or face-to-face.

Online predators typically begin by “child grooming” or psychologically manipulating their victims to make them more likely to agree with what they want. At first, child abusers present themselves as pleasant, caring and empathic people who appear genuinely interested in a child’s interests. This calculating method of entry, satisfies the emotional connection that so many vulnerable child need – especially those who lack self confidence, self assurance or who may be going through a developmental period where internal conflict between the need for individualization and familial connection is present. This is a time when children look for the admiration of outsiders to support their own unique need for individuality – a highly vulnerable time during a child’s life. If (and when) a predator can gain their victim’s trust, a skilled predator can almost easily persuade a child to engage in activities that push the limits of what would be accepted.

Dr. Anna C. Salter, a respected psychologist and expert in the field of child sexual maltreatment states, “The establishment (and eventual betrayal) of affection and trust occupies a central role in the child molester’s interactions with children. The grooming process often seems similar from offender to offender, largely because it takes little to discover that emotional seduction is the most effective way to manipulate children.”

Once a predator has their victim’s trust, they progressively sensitize them to sexually explicit content. They might “accidentally” say something inappropriate, invite a “non-malicious” discussion about sex and gradually expose the child to pornography. If a child eventually does agree to meet them in person, the predator will employ the same tactics overtime, ultimately touching, abusing, raping or even kidnapping the child.

What can parents do?

Educate your kids. As parents, it’s important that we educate our children about the dangers that they can find on the net. Firm rules about talking openly to strangers or those where a small relationship exists, must be made. Instruct your kids as well, to limit releasing personal information – ever – not in person and never online. Once your child is old enough to understand and conceptualize some of the dangers that exist, make sure your children understand why posting pictures of themselves, with vivid descriptions of where they were, when and with who can be dangerous. Uploading a picture of themselves with a tagline, “Me and my BFF Jessica Smith acting goofy at the Willowbrook Mall” can be all a predator needs to begin in-depth research to identify, locate and learn about their prey (please read about the dangers of Geotagging here).

Be part of their life. Arguable the most important tip – children are vulnerable to online predators if they lack emotional stability and feel like they have no one they can turn to. Establish loving relationships with your kids so that they are secure enough not to look for care elsewhere. More so, children who feel close to their parents are more likely to talk about what’s going on in their life – and a new acquaintance on the net is definitely a matter worth sharing.

Watch out for signs. Look for warning signs that your child may be falling prey to an online predator. Too much time spent on the net, especially behind locked doors at night, can be a sign that an online predator has targeted your child. Finding inappropriate content in their computer may also be a signal. Secretiveness, marked defensiveness and anxiety should also raise your suspicions. Most children will quickly log off or pull up alternative screens on the computer when a parent walks in the room – be aware.

Consider installing monitoring software. It might seem like an invasion of privacy, it is not. Safety reins supreme. Consider installing software that monitors which sites your child visits, how much time they spend on it, and how they got there. This software may also be programmed to automatically ban sites known to be a haven for online predators or to even text or email a transcript of email, forum or online conversations. Software can also be installed on cell phones to store detailed information, such as verbatim text messages, pictures sent and received as well as emails – all unknown to your child. While it may appear strict and over the top, within the past fourteen days (as of the writing of this article), three sets of parents around the U.S. learned that their daughters, all under the age of 14, were sending nude pictures of themselves via text messages to male friends.

Nothing is more precious than your children. Nothing. Their safety can never be taken lightly. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to email us.

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