My friend Linda Tomczak has worked on the front lines of fighting human trafficking for years. She acknowledges that good parents, grandparents, teachers, and others having close contact with kids are movitated to keep them safe from predators. But we must remain vigilant. Here’s why:
• Every 9 minutes, government authorities respond to another report of child sexual abuse.
• Of aggressive sexual solicitations of youth (when the solicitor attempted to establish an offline contact via in-person meeting or phone call), 73% of youth met the solicitor online.
• Only 1 in 3 victims will report sexual crimes to a trusted adult (source: International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children)
• Dr. Michael Seto has estimated that 3% of the male population is aroused by pedophilic stimuli (source: International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children)
• At least 200 million girls and 100 million boys will be sexually victimized before they reach adulthood (source: International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children)
• At least 8 million children go missing each year (source: International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children)
• Online sex offenders use victims’ social networking sites to gain information about likes and dislikes, to gain home and school information, and to learn whereabouts at a specific time (source: Journal of Adolescent Health 47, 2010)
• There are at least 786,000 registered sex offenders in the United States, but more than 100,000 of them have been lost in the system, and multitudes of sexual offenders have never been caught.
• The largest demographic viewing online pornography is teen boys, whose viewing of porn gives them a distorted view of dating and sex, resulting in rape and dating violence.
• Exposure to Internet pornography has contributed to the declining age of sexual predators.
• 40 percent of kids in grades 4-8 reported they connected or chatted online with a stranger. Of those 40 percent:
– 53 percent revealed their phone number to a stranger
– 21 percent spoke by phone with a stranger
– 15 percent tried to meet with a stranger
– 11 percent met a stranger in their own home, the stranger’s home, a park, mall, or restaurant
– 30 percent texted a stranger from their phone
– 6 percent revealed their home address to a stranger (source: Children’s Internet Usage Study, Center for Cyber Safety and Education, March 2019).
• 14 percent of 7th–9th grade students reported that they had communicated with someone online about sexual things; 11 percent of students reported that they had been asked to talk about sexual things online 8 percent have been exposed to nude pictures; and 7 percent were also asked for nude pictures of themselves. 9 percent have accepted an online invitation to meet someone in person and 10 percent have asked someone online to meet them in person.
• 59 percent of 7th–9th grade victims said their perpetrators were a friend they know in person; 36 percent said it was someone else they know; 21 percent said the cyber offender was a classmate; 19 percent indicated the abuser was an online friend; and 16 percent said it was an online stranger.
• The age of first exposure to pornography continues to decline, with many children as young as age five having already seen pornography.
The old advice still applies, Tomczak says: Put computers in a public place and use a filtering program. She advises, “Turn off location options on phone cameras and social media apps as well as connectivity with strangers on gaming consoles. The ESRB has clear instructions for all of the gaming consoles on their website.” Tomczak also advises, “If you’re giving phones to young kids, make sure they lack internet connectivity so the devices are used only as phones. But recognize kids can use others’ phones.” Here are some of her additional suggestions:
Openly communicate with your kids. Talk about risks. Tell stories.
- Explain that kids’ safety is more important than their privacy. Parents need to control the app store and know what apps their kids are using. Some parent have passwords so kids can’t freely download apps without parental approval.
- Know kids face challenges on all sides and must navigate a social network that is extremely challenging. Try to understand things from their perspective.
- Be your child’s ally in protecting his or her safety. Explain why you need oversight into what they view and who they communicate with.
- Realize predators and pornographers are actively targeting kids, and these dangerous people are shrewd and technically savvy. Besides putting proper safeguards in place, parents must educate their children as to what is appropriate and what is off-limits, and why.
- Keep guiding them. Teens’ brains are not fully developed. The prefrontal cortex, which controls logical thinking, doesn’t fully developed until the mid 20s, so even though teens may think they have good reasoning skills (and may even convince you they do), they really do still need parental guidance.
- Find and show some of the age-appropriate videos that instruct children and teens of appropriate conduct on the internet and the consequences of poor choices.
Put boundaries around screen time.
- Collect phones at bedtime.
- Consider using screen time as a reward, given in increments based on kids having completed chores and homework.
- Set a screen-free cutoff time, preferably at least an hour before bedtime, as some experts say the blue light from devices disrupts the production of melatonin. Brains need screen-free time to prepare for sleep.
- Factor in that teens’ body clocks change, and they do not fall asleep till later than they did as children, but they actually need more sleep than adults. The lure of the internet and responding to friends’ text messages can be too great, so parents need to be the heavy and take the screen away at a certain time or teens will constantly be sleep deprived, which is dangerous, affects academic performance, stunts intellectual development, and puts kids at risk for making poor decisions. Also, driving while sleep deprived can be more deadly than driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
- Be aware that to avoid detection, many predators contact children and teens during the night when parents are most likely asleep.
- Kids with access to phones at night are often awakened by calls and texts from friends and spend time replying when they need to be sleeping. Keep devices stored where teens can’t access them in the night.
- Bear in mind that children/teens with pornography addictions are more likely to view porn at night when their parents won’t discover them.
Make limits age appropriate
- Adapt internet safety rules to kids’ ages, but apply them to every family member, including adults.
- If giving phones to young kids, makes sure they lack internet connectivity so the devices are used only as phones. But recognize kids can use others’ phones, as well.
- Make sure you “OK” all apps and game purchases. Keep the password for app downloads.
- Explain how much you love and value your children and that you want to protect them. Doing so is much more effective than a dramatic danger lecture or a “because I said so” approach.
- If you receive pushback because you need to add restrictions, remind your teen that they using a phone is a privilege, not a right—especially if you are paying the bill. That means they must use devices according to family guidelines. At all ages, computers stay in public places.
Thanks to Linda for her advocacy and for all this good info!