Parents, every single day I receive a handful of news articles that report some form of online sexual predation of children, or what’s referred to as “online grooming”. But to be honest, I’ve shied away from sharing these articles and information as, and I’m sure you’d agree, they can be quite depressing and terrifying to say the least.
That said however, I feel that from time to time we need to be reminded. You need to know. So, if that means coming to terms with the harsh reality that the Internet, though it has many wonders and benefits, has a deep, scary, dark side where our children’s safety is at a very high risk and depraved individuals are able to roam free with easy access to our children, then so be it.
“…the fact is that such crimes [sexual predator interaction with an adolescent] are relatively rare considering the millions of children and teens that go online every day. Despite thousands of arrests of would-be predators caught up in sting operations, tragic cases don’t occur very often.” – Larry Magdid
Sure, on a scale of millions of kids the percentage may be small, but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem, nor does it null the heartache and suffering that the parents of these victims go through. I’m sure to them statistics are worth absolutely nothing.
Contrary to the rare occurrences of these cases, in just the last few days I’ve come across several reports of online sex offenders interacting with children. This California case involves a 29-year-old registered sex offender who was accused of raping a 15-year-old girl he met online, thankfully, he’s now in jail. I also came across a blog post from a friend of mine wherein he described the conversation that his friend’s daughter had with an online sex predator. The situation was very real, very scary, and very easy for most teens and tweens to fall victim to today.
After I learned of a much more serious and detrimental case, the story of Andrew Bryne, I thought back to an earlier blog post of mine. I found agreement with Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal that the Internet Safety Technical Task Force report misguidedly downplays the threat from sex offenders. “Children are solicited every day online,” Blumenthal told the New York Times. “Some fall prey, and the results are tragic. That harsh reality defies the statistical academic research underlying the report.” While the full report is 278 pages, this quote from the report gnawed at me:
“Those [adolescents] experiencing difficulties offline, such as physical and sexual abuse, and those with other psychosocial problems are most at risk online. Patterns of risky behavior are also correlated with sexual solicitation and the most significant factor in an online connection resulting in an offline sexual encounter is the discussion of sex.……risks appear to be more correlated with a youth’s psychological profile and risky behaviors than any particular technology platform.” – Final Report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
If the children that are most at risk online are those with offline difficulties, how could that be entirely accurate when you consider what one man did, Andrew Bryne, to 250 children whose actions spanned an entire country? Could every child victim of his be one experiencing offline difficulties like physical or sexual abuse at home? Doubtful.
The 20-year-old UK resident was recently sentenced to jail for six years for preying on 250 girls and boys across the country. During his court trial, Bryne admitted to grooming his victims in online chatrooms and social networking sites. (I checked one of the large social networks, and yes, I found a few profiles with his name, and based on all of his friends I could assess that these profiles were from someone in the UK.) He pled guilty to 32 charges, including having sex with three 13-year-old girls and one 14-year-old out of the 20 under-age girls he admitted to having sex with. Bryne even went as far as convincing a 13-year-old girl that he was a “teacher of sex”.
Bryne would also entice young boys to perform sexual acts on their webcams and send him the footage. He would then send this footage to other pedophiles. Bryne told police that his targets were children who displayed any sign of emotional distress, depression, or low self-esteem, “he was very skilled at picking up on that”. He said that these same children were just looking for some kind of positive feedback from someone. When his victims didn’t warm up to him “he would turn pretty nasty on them”. UK police said that out of their top 15 sexual predators, “Bryne was probably number one…”
Although I imagine that there are accomplices to his actions, what I’ve listed here is just a summary of the horrible and unconscionable operations that this ONE sexual predator was responsible for. If you want to read more about his convictions, click here, or watch the video.
Parents, though the Andrew Bryne case is a very extreme one, I receive news articles talking about this kind of stuff every day. And not just in one specific country, but around the world and in your and my home town. We as parents have to stay aware, be educated and use the tools and knowledge we have to do all we can to help our kids have a positive and safe online experience. It’s not about preventing our kids from going online or logging in. Educating your children is key, which leads me to my next point.
The problem that’s facing us today can be broken down into two main points. First, there is a lack of serious Internet-safety education on a global scale. As Michael Dermody points out, education on this issue needs to reach a mainstream level. Second, it’s most likely that your child participates in daily conversations and interactions with people online, some who they do know, and some who they don’t know—probably more so the latter. It’s also most likely that this same site fails to verify identities or run a registered sex offender check. And as a result, they’re allowing members to participate anonymously in their site, and one can argue that they’re even promoting adult-adolescent interaction.
Yoursphere is doing what it can to make a difference. Just the other day I was talking with an undercover online special agent and I was the one who brought it to his attention that the United States, Australia, and New Zealand are the only countries in the world that do not protect the identities of its registered sex offenders. Meaning, in these countries, a business can pay to access the data that shows who is a registered sex offender. This public access is why Yoursphere.com is for U.S. residents—we can verify whether someone is a sex offender or not. We are aware that the majority of sex offenders aren’t registered, so they are not on a list for us to screen from, but what they do have are identities thus eliminating anonymous interaction and providing us a direct link to them to be utilized with law enforcement if necessary.
Consider how many children could fall victim to men like them. I mean you can give them the benefit of the doubt if you want and say that out of the 90,000 only 45,000 migrated to Facebook, that’s still 45,000 times the 250 kids that ONE MAN groomed in ONE COUNTRY = 11,250,000 potential victims.
If that’s too overwhelming to take in, we’ll just use New York as an example. 3,500 registered sex offenders were taken off of Facebook and MySpace last year alone. That’s 3,500 x 250 = 875,000 potential victims. Way too many if you ask me. This is exactly why it’s completely unacceptable that adults are granted full permission to interact with children online without the same real-world safeguards in place: parental consent for interaction, identities verified, no private conversations behind a closed door, a sex offender check conducted, and more.
When it’s all said and done, the question can be asked: Is there a guarantee that our children are protected online even in safety-focused sites like Yoursphere? Sadly, like the every-day real world, no. But when you combine site safeguards with parental involvement, education of kids and their parents, then we have a chance to create positive change and avoid the negative.
You can call me an alarmist, a cynic, or a conservative, but at the end of the day I’m a mom sharing a truth with you that I simply find unacceptable and just plain wrong.