How to Keep Your Child Safe on the Internet

04/28/2011 01:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

This post was co-authored by David Schwimmer.

Spoiler alert: The new film "Trust" does not have a happy, Hollywood ending.

The movie details the online recruitment and subsequent rape of a 14-year-old girl by a sexual predator in his 40s. "Charlie," the rapist, initially masquerades as a 16-year-old in a chat room for young volleyball enthusiasts. There he meets "Annie Cameron" and showers the 14-year-old with flattery, attention and eventually romance at a time when she most craves it. Charlie turns himself into Annie's on-demand confidant. Soon he sets up a real-life rendezvous. Annie is distressed when she meets a man much older than she expects, but the combination of her emotional investment in him at this point and his practiced seductive skills enable him to still lure her to a nearby hotel. He rapes her -- and disappears.

Some critics of the film, such as Emily Bazelon of Slate, contend that the scenario of an "adult preying on a teenager online is rare." Others practically accuse the filmmakers of fear mongering, because statistics show that rapists of children are more likely than not to know their victims. In other words, parents should worry more about their children's pastor, basketball coach or even military recruiter than a new Facebook friend.

Trust us: as advocates who have long battled to bring attention to the high numbers of rapes and child molestations in America, we can testify to the fact that pedophiles routinely use the Internet as a weapon in their vast arsenal of deception.

In the minds of today's technology-savvy children, someone they meet online is not a stranger. It is a new friend. Internet friendships can develop in a few clicks. The predator capitalizes on the vast power of the Internet to expand their victim search beyond the neighborhood children they know -- and who might know them.

Even pedophiles who initially meet potential victims at school or at church often rely on the Internet to speed up "grooming" -- the methodical process of recruiting rape candidates, building trust, introducing sexuality into the dialogue and persuading the victim to keep the "relationship" secret.

Those who doubt that deviants lurk online should rev up their search engines. On April 4, 2011, James Dale Brown, 27, a.k.a. "Bob Lewis," pled guilty to trying to extort pornography from a 14-year-old girl he had contacted through Facebook. He managed to obtain erotic photos of the girl, and threatened to send the revealing shots to her "friends" unless she sent him a video of her having sex.

A month earlier, 24-year-old David Bradt of Colonie, N.Y., was sentenced to 13 years in prison for felony rape, having mined his roughly 700 Facebook "friends" to meet minors and their acquaintances. "When he was 'friending' one girl and he was able to see her list of friends, he was basically using those girls as leads, like you would in a business," Albany District Attorney P. David Soares told the Albany Times-Union.

A Justice Department official who just saw "Trust" quipped that the film's plot had been "stolen" from a case he once prosecuted. The perpetrator, a 27-year-old man from San Francisco, posed as a teenager online. He trolled chat rooms and struck up a relationship with a 15-year-old girl from Alaska. As the prosecutor recalled, "He traveled to Alaska, took her to a motel and molested her there over the course of two days, and brought someone with him, a co-defendant, who filmed the rape. He returned to San Francisco, and promised that he would come back to marry her. They did continue to communicate online." The rape video ultimately helped convict the culprit, who is serving 30 years in prison.

So what can concerned parents do? Here are a few common sense steps to promote safer Internet surfing:

  • Think like a child. What is happening online is real to them; there is nothing virtual about it. As soon as you buy your child a computer or smartphone, begin a conversation that includes the online world. Don't just ask, "What happened at school today?" Ask, "Did anything happen online today? On Facebook?" and, "What websites have you visited recently? Find anything new you like?" Ask them who each of their "friends" are online. If they don't know or can't explain a "friend," consider what course of action to take.
  • Embrace technology. Parents can no longer throw up their hands and say, "I don't understand what they're doing online -- the whole IM or tweet thing..." Talk to your kids more about it. Consider your child as your technology educator. Ask for lessons from them about the latest gadgets and the newest social networking sites. Then use this opportunity to discuss their safety.
  • Educate your child about the reality of the Internet. Any information, photograph or video they share online, they must consider permanently "out there" and accessible by all. They shouldn't post anything they wouldn't want or intend a total stranger -- in fact, the world -- to see or know about them. This includes private information about you, too; basic information such as your home address, phone, vacation plans, etc.
  • Encourage the "do unto others" rule online. Point out that the ethics you teach them should translate into their behavior online, as well. For instance, they shouldn't say anything online to someone (or about someone) they wouldn't feel comfortable saying to that person face-to-face.
  • Monitor your kids online -- maybe. You may feel comfortable "friending" your teenager on Facebook. Or you may not. Some parents electronically eavesdrop, or install spyware; others judge digital monitoring a breach of trust. But it's a debate that every parent should have.
  • Finally, consider seeing the film "Trust" with your kids. Given the subject matter and "R" rating, it's not for every child; but we feel it appropriate for the average teenager. We hope the film will inspire more dialogue among parents and kids about a sensitive topic. If one child avoids a predator because of this film, it will mean more to us than a Hollywood ending.

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David Schwimmer is the director of "Trust." He is on the board of directors of the Rape Foundation for the Rape Treatment Center of Santa Monica.

Hemanshu Nigam, a former deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County and federal prosecutor against child and computer crimes for the U.S. Department of Justice, served as an advisor to the filmmakers of "Trust." He is founder of SSP Blue, an advisory firm for online safety, security and privacy challenges facing corporations and governments.