Walking into the small room at the Massachusetts Foster Parent program, I saw several faces I recognized and several I didn't -- all of them eager to hear some information on how they could wrap their minds around the technological mystery that today's youth have grown up in. According to the most recent report by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 676,569 children were the victims of child abuse and neglect in 2011. And of that number, more than 24 percent of victims were younger than 3 years old, so the need to educate ourselves and prevent predators from reaching out to our children has never been stronger. Although most modern parents have been exposed to the Internet, there are still many who have barely touched a computer. To complicate things further, the technological and social networking elements change as fast as the weather.
Sitting down at the makeshift conference table, I gave my regular introduction but kept my presentation short. I have learned in these groups that rather than lecturing to participants, it is better to open up a Q&A session. Parents (especially foster parents) have questions -- tons of questions -- about safety, about what their children are facing, about bullying and how to prevent access to their children's information. Many children are taught that Internet dangers exist, but the risk is that they might encounter someone who knows how to manipulate them by taking advantage of their natural innocence and need to reach out. If parents really knew the extent of the dangers out there, they might take their computers and bury them in a six-foot hole in the backyard. This of course is ridiculous and not an option, but the repulsion over what lies waiting for our children is a call to action.
I'm not talking about drugs, porn, sex or anything of the sort -- this can all be discussed and handled. The greatest dangers lurk in the idle activities children engage in while reaching out to peers stemming from the need to connect: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Digger, Instagram, etc. The list of social networking and feed-related organizations out there is a mile long.
During this particular discussion, a mother sat across the table from me, nicely dressed, her left arm tattooed with an elegant Celtic design. She stared at me, and there was a moment of silence followed by, "I have a 13-year-old girl at home who was e-personated on Facebook and was badly bullied by friends at school because of it."
My heart sank. It is something I have seen dozens of times and sadly, something that is difficult to prevent up front and to clean up afterward. Basically, what the mother told me was that her foster child was a victim of online impersonation. A predator created a Facebook account and acted as if he were this girl, using stolen pictures of her -- no doubt from her own Facebook account. The person went on to friend all of her friends and began spreading rumors and lies about the girl and her drug-addicted birth mother. Just wait -- the story gets worse. The person doing this "e-personation" was a male in his forties who was infatuated with the girl but someone she had never even met.
This is exactly the kind of situation I see all the time when trying to protect children online. In 2010, one in five adolescents said they had been cyberbullied at some point in their lives, and about that same number admit to having been a cyberbully. So one in 10 adolescents had been both a cyberbully and a victim.
Another parent in the room asked how that predator could e-personate someone, especially a child. So I provided an example. Let's flip things around and look at this from the child-predator perspective. First, he (or she) chooses a community, most likely one far from his own so he is not easily discovered. He identifies the schools in the town, then visits the schools' websites to check out what various children have posted about sports, games, theater -- until locating the perfect little girl or boy who fits his "taste." He spots the child of interest and reads the caption with the child's name.
Let's say the school is at least being a little protective and doesn't use the child's first name but rather the first initial followed by her last name as in "J. Doe." Well, the person sees the little girl on a soccer team. So chances are that the little girl has other interests in soccer or has been involved in some other activity. The predator does a search on the web for "J. Doe" and adds in the keyword "soccer," along with other keywords like the town or the name of the school. In the results, the predator then sees "Jane Smith" who is part of a group on Facebook that has several other students in the same group because whoever created that group didn't take the time to lock down the group's visibility on search engines.
Clicking the link, the predator can confirm that the girl is who he thinks she is because her face matches the one on the school website. Now he can see her Facebook profile. Because she isn't privacy-savvy, she also has "Dad," "Mom" and a few other people labeled in her friends' list -- so the predator now has additional names to use for his search, helping him acquire an address.
Within 30 minutes the predator now has:
- Identity: Jane Doe, age 9
- Parents: John and Betty Doe
- Address: 123 Some Street
- School: Town Memorial School
- Communication: established with Jane via Messenger
What can you do to prevent this?
In my recent book, The Steel Van Man, a serial killer hunts down and kills people who abuse children -- vigilante justice, and not something I recommend. But as a parent, there are several real precautions you can take to prevent such actions on the part of the predator. Be forewarned, your children may not be happy with your attempt to protect. These efforts are in every child's best interest, however, and I advise you to initiate these protections, explaining why they are important to your child.
- Most important? Talk to your children, maintaining an open dialogue at all times. This way, they know to be on the alert -- even with people who seem to be their friends -- and hopefully, they will let you know if something doesn't feel right.
- Install monitoring/blocking software such as K9 or System Surveillance Pro. Learn how to use it and check it regularly. This software is only as good as the parent who monitors it.
- Record passwords for all your children's social networking accounts. If, heaven forbid, something should happen to your child, you need to know where to investigate.
- Disable "Location Services" on the camera of your child's iPod, mobile phone or any other device that can take pictures. This prevents the GPS coordinates from being embedded in the photos.
I always encourage parents to ask me if they have questions or concerns. Communication and information are the keys to protecting our children, and when it comes to our kids, there are no stupid questions.