This morning I had the great joy of catching up on my pile of articles from the past two weeks about Internet-initiated child sexual abuse.

A few standouts include:

  • A 37-year-old man who had sex and impregnated a 16-year-old girl he met through MySpace (through the social networking site, he posed as a 19-year-old, but he and the girl met multiple times for sex, despite her suspicions that he had been lying about his age).
  • A 33-year-old man who met and began a relationship with a 13-year-old through MySpace; they exchanged explicit text messages before authorities intervened.  The authorities then posed as the 13-year-old, at which point the man agreed to travel to meet up with the girl for sex.
  • A 42-year-old man, posing as a 19-year-old girl through Facebook, targeted nine boys through the site, established “romantic” online relationships with several of the boys, and then solicited the boys for nude photos of themselves.
  • Another 42-year-old man contacted a pair of teenage sisters through Facebook—aged 14 and 11.  He began to communicate with them through their cell phones, arranged to meet them and then assaulted both of the girls in a public park.

Fun reading, huh?

In every one of these stories, and the many others I read this morning, an adult was able to form a close, intimate online relationship with a vulnerable youth.

So what’s going on here?

While in the offline world it would be highly unlikely that your kids would strike up a conversation with an older adult, in the online world, through chatrooms, multiplayer games and social networking sites, kids are far less likely to think about age, gender or the intentions of someone they meet.

Additionally, our kids (like all of us!) are seeking attention, affirmation and love, and online predators are skilled at preying upon these vulnerabilities.  Initial conversations often appear innocent, but over time, a predator will seek to establish trust and seek to control their victim.  An online predator will use a process that law enforcement calls “grooming” to test boundaries and exploit a child’s natural curiosities about sex.  They often will introduce a child to pornography and use explicit videos, images and conversations to lower a child’s inhibitions.

Online predators will often flatter and compliment a child excessively.  By sympathizing and supporting a child through every conversation topic, a predator can often quickly become a very important person in a vulnerable youth’s life.  An online predator will typically prey upon a teen’s desire for romance and adventure and will promise a youth an exciting, stress-free life (sounds pretty good doesn’t it?).  In some circumstances, an online predator will make threats and blackmail a victim, even using child pornography featuring the victim, to force them to perform sexual acts or to create more child pornography.

What is so shocking to many parents is that victims will often describe the perpetrator as their “best friend” or the “only person who understands them”.  In most cases of Internet-initiated crime against youth, a teen has been so brainwashed or groomed by a perpetrator that they will meet up with them willingly and repeatedly for sexual contact… something that several of the stories I read this morning testify to.

A law enforcement friend shared an important word of wisdom: If you don’t tell your child you love them, someone else will.   Boys and girls are at risk.  I’ve talked with far too many parents who thought that their kids were too good or too smart to end up in danger online, only to discover that their son or daughter was involved in highly risky behavior online.

So think about it.  Are you take time to really care for your kids?  Have you told them lately that you love them?  Have you explained that you want to protect them?  Are you setting clear boundaries for their lives—both offline and online?