By Amanda Wyatt
It’s been nearly 20 years since the brutal murder of Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old from New Jersey, raised awareness about child sexual abuse and sparked national legislation to try and prevent such tragedies.
But in 2013, young people are still being targeted by sex offenders and no where is this more apparent than online.
And while the Internet may be rife with predators, by being armed with the right tools, parents and other concerned adults can help keep the young people in their lives safe.
This was the topic of a cyber-safety presentation by Annie Ortiz, a representative from Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victim’s Center, at a special Parent Teacher Association (PTSA) meeting last Thursday at Pierson Middle/High School.
“Cybersex offenders use their computers to contact, to groom and entice juveniles for victimization,” Ortiz explained. “To them, the Internet is a great tool, because on the Internet they can be whoever they want to be to access the victim.”
According to Ortiz, a recent survey revealed that over a one-year period, one in five minors were sexually solicited online. One in 33 were approached aggressively — for example, the predator may have tried to set up a meeting, telephoned or sent regular mail and gifts to the victim. Yet, less than 10 percent of these incidents were reported to the police.
Predators will often seek out children on otherwise harmless social media sites, blogs and virtual dairies, chat rooms, gaming communities and more. They will slowly develop a bond with the child — all the while ensuring parents remain unaware of their relationship — in the hope that they will one day be able to meet face-to-face.
In addition to contacting children, predators use the Internet to communicate with other pedophiles, as well as for seeing, making, viewing and sending child pornography.
Ortiz also pointed to some troubling numbers on child sexual abuse as a whole. Ninety percent of abusers have an established relationship with their victims and 30 percent of the 90 percent are relatives.
Nearly all sex offenders, she said, are male. Ninety one percent are white, and a sizeable percentage are under the age of 35. The average pedophile starts at age 15 and commits an average of 117 sex crimes over their lifetime.
According to Ortiz, many cybersex offenders are also child pornographers. Child pornography is a huge industry that brings in an estimated $3 billion annually, and it’s tricky to catch the pornographers, who will go to great lengths to hide their identities and whereabouts.
At the same time, Ortiz brought up the danger of “sexting,” which, when it involves minors, is actually a form of child pornography. For example, if a teenager takes an explicit photo of herself and sends it to her boyfriend, she can still be charged with creating and possessing child pornography.
So how can parents keep their kids safe from Internet predators?
“The whole goal is to stay invisible from the sex offenders,” said Ortiz.
Parents should never post personal information or photos about their kids online, she said. An acquaintance with access to the photo could, for example, morph it with another pornographic image of an adult body.
Parents should also review the privacy and settings of websites like Facebook every so often to ensure personal information is kept private. Similarly, parents should change their settings on websites and applications so that their location is not shared with others.
In addition, Ortiz recommends purchasing internet filtering products — such as Net Nanny and CyberSitter — to block unsavory content and monitor online chatting. Parents can also personally enforce rules and limitations on their children’s use of computers and smart phones, as well as monitor their emails, browsing history and friends lists.
Some parents, however, may disagree with these techniques, arguing that they want to trust their kids and give them privacy. But Parents for Megan’s Law has a different perspective.
“You need to know their passwords, you need to be able to check their emails periodically,” Ortiz said. “It’s sending the message that it isn’t you we don’t trust, it’s everybody else in that cyber world that we don’t trust…”
She added, “Very innocently, [your kids] may not even realize that they’re being groomed, but you can try to prevent that.”