The first confirmed death in the United States by an Internet sexual predator was in 2002. The victim was a thirteen-year-old girl. She was popular, made good grades, and was a cheerleader co-captain at her private Catholic school. But she met a guy online and eventually met him in person. He killed her. This tragic story is a horrific reminder to all of us as parents of the fight we are in to protect our teens from the darkness of this world.
Porn is huge on the Internet, but it is not the only online enemy. The threat of sexual predators lurking a click away and propositioning your teen is real.
While speaking at a church in Texas several years ago, I was saddened to learn that the pastor’s daughter had recently been assaulted after agreeing to meet a person she had met in an online chat room. After several months of chatting online with someone she thought was a seventeen-year-old boy from a neighboring city, she was lured into meeting this cyber predator at a local gas station. He turned out to be thirty-six. She was abducted and raped repeatedly before being released. After this horrific ordeal, this young girl told authorities she had gone to the gas station because the man had told her things that she always wanted to hear from a guy.
These cases are extreme. But it is critical that you remain alert and aware of the dangers awaiting your teen online. I find that most victims of sexual predators online are teens considered to be loners. They often feel insecure, are looking for love, and so get conned into a meeting. Most teens believe they are communicating with someone similar in age. Almost always, as in the case of the pastor’s daughter in Texas, they are told exactly want they want to hear.
There are several warning signs that your teen is dancing with danger online. Ask yourself questions like these:
- How much time does my teen spend online? With smart phones and laptops that many high school students carry to and from school these days, it’s hard to discern this by mere observation. Your teen may be online far more than you think. Maybe your answer is “I have no idea how much time my teen spends online.” If so, then it may be that your teen is in a dangerous place.
- Does my teen have a lot of friends, or is he or she more of a loner? Teens who are loners and don’t have a large circle of friends can be an easier targets for sexual predators.
- Is my teen more of a risk taker? Teens can use the Internet to engage in risky behavior or post messages on blogs or profiles suggesting interest in promiscuous behavior.
- Is my teen more sheltered? Surprisingly, a sheltered teen, especially a girl, could be easier prey if a predator promises her gifts, jewelry, his love, marriage, and more. I find that teens who have been more sheltered often have a lower skepticism threshold. They have never had to mistrust anybody, so it’s not something they readily do.
- Does my teen keep me informed about his or her surfing habits? Does my teen quickly exit a page or make the screen go dark when someone enters the room? If so, he or she could be hiding something you need to be aware of.
- Does my teen have Instagram or a Facebook page? If so, ask questions about it, such as “Who are your online friends?” and “Do you have privacy settings to block others from viewing your profile or entering your page?”
- Do I know my teen’s favorite sites? If not, you had better find out.
- Does my teen text? Silly question, right! So, the obvious next question is, “To whom?” It is a good idea to go through your teen’s list of online (and “real world”) friends frequently with him or her and have your teen tell you the real name of everyone on the list and how your teen knows them.
- Does my teen have his or her own blog or Web site? If so, check the site out. What information does your teen give out about himself or herself, friends, family, and so on? What pictures are posted? Does your teen show a side of his or her personality you’ve never seen before?
These are just a few suggestions for you to consider pertaining to your teen’s surfing habits. Remember, keeping tabs on your teen’s online life doesn’t make you a nag. It makes you a really good parent. Although your teen has a right to privacy, you still have a right to know about the life your teen leads online.
Frequently review the above list, asking questions and researching your teen’s online habits. Watch for any change in behavior. Is your teen acting differently? Has he or she changed friends lately? Is he or she receiving phone calls from someone you don’t know or from numbers you do not recognize?
All of this information can seem overwhelming, especially if you have not implemented such rigid practices in the past. And admittedly, this is work. But it is worth it, for the safety of your teen.