You may remember a show that was on Dateline NBC years ago called, “To Catch a Predator.” In this weekly expose, reporter Chris Hansen worked with a group called “Perverted Justice” along with members of law enforcement to catch child sexual predators. As part of a sting operation, each predator had met what they thought was a young adult male or female online.
In actuality, they were sending messages to a decoy who worked for the show. Each predator attempted to “groom” the victim and had started typing sexually explicit messages to the decoy. After several conversations, (transcripts of these conversations can be read in Hansen’s book,) the predator would then make a plan to meet with the supposed child or adolescent so that they could have sex with them. The meeting place was actually a home that the television show had rented and filled with hidden cameras.
When the predator entered the home, the decoy would call down that he or she would be down in a minute and instead, Chris Hansen would step out and interview the criminal. Some of these men bolted from the house immediately, only to be met by an officer outside who would then arrest them. Others tried to make excuses for why they were there, with nearly all of them volunteering that they had never done something like this before.
Hansen and his crew worked in multiple states and over the course of the show, Hansen came in contact with over 200 of these predators. The sting operation helped gather evidence to prosecute many of these men.
In an effort to teach kids about the dangers of the internet, Hansen formed a panel of kids and showed them videos of the “To Catch a Predator” series. He said that the first thing that surprised him was that the kids assumed that this show was made up of actors playing parts of would-be predators. It was hard for them to fathom that this was real footage of men who were caught in the act of trying to have a sexual encounter with a child.
When Hansen asked the kids how many had been approached sexually online by an adult in a way that made them uncomfortable, all of them raised their hands. When he asked them how many had reported this incident to their parents, all of the kids looked down at their feet as if they were embarrassed and none of them raised their hands. When asked why, they all said that they thought their parents would take away internet privileges. This taught Hansen that the first step in preparing kids to be safe on the internet is letting them know that they can come to parents and that they will not be blamed for the bad behavior of adults.
Here are some tips for parents on how to keep kids safe:
For children under the age of 13, tell them that some people on the internet are not what they seem. They may try to hurt people in multiple ways. The example Hansen gives is, “If a man was walking down the street and you didn’t know who he was, you wouldn’t just invite him into our home.” This is a great talking point because it lets kids know that if you engage in an online conversation with someone, you are, in essence, letting them into your personal life.
Don’t be intimidated by the internet. You don’t have to be an I.T. expert to keep track of what your child is doing online. Children love to teach things to adults, so if you don’t know anything about a particular social media site or chat group that they are involved in, ask them to tell you how it works. This way it will feel less like they are being spied on, and more like you are showing interest in their daily lives.
Teach them what information should be off-limits online to strangers. For instance, Hansen suggests that a young boy can talk to someone about how he likes baseball, but shouldn’t tell a stranger the school team that he plays on.
Tell your kids that what they post online stays there forever. Not only can this posted information be embarrassing or potentially threaten the safety of the person who posts it, but it will also say something about the person’s character to potential employers or college admissions teams. This lesson will also help to avoid cyber-bullying and sexting.
Limit amount of time on the computer to two hours a day. If time is limited, kids are more likely to spend that time talking to their friends and downloading music than in random surfing and conversations with strangers.
Keep the computer in a public area of the home.
Remind them, “Don’t post anything that you wouldn’t want your parents, your principal, or your classmates to see.”
Tell them to guard their passwords. There is no reason for them to divulge this information even to their closest friend.
If you child is approached by a predator online, report this immediately to your internet service provider.
Have a good anti-virus program on your computer to avoid SPAM that may lead your child to inappropriate sites.
Be aware if your child is playing interactive games where they can have online conversations with other players.
Lastly, if the children don’t seem to get the type of people who can be on the internet, Hansen advises a “scared straight” tactic of showing the child footage from the television show so that they can see that these monsters do in fact exist. The following is one of many clips that can be found on UTube by searching, “To Catch a Predator.”
Chris Hansen’s book is available online and can also be heard as an audio book on the Audible website-
Locally, a great site for prevention is the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. You can find more information about them at the following link-
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