Last December, New York's Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that more than 3500 registered sex offenders had been purged from the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace in the state's first database sweep for sexual predators.
That's 3500 caught, convicted and registered sex offenders who'd actually used their real names when they signed up for a Facebook or MySpace page. That's not counting all the deviants that haven't yet been busted, pled to a lesser charge, had charges dropped, never registered their emails with their probation or parole officers, socially communicate using an alias, or live outside the Empire State. With that in mind, consider this sobering statistic: According to the Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM), the average sex offender offends for 16 years before he's finally caught. In that time span, he has committed an average of 318 offenses and violated 110 victims.
Wow. Now just imagine who your kids may be chatting with online.
The explosion of the Internet over the past decade has spawned fertile hunting grounds for sex offenders. Kids, and particularly teens, live their lives instantaneously and out loud on social networks, where every detail from where they'll be hanging out that night to who they'll be with and what they'll be wearing when they get there is posted for all of their "friends" to see. And those friends are not just the traditional bunch of kids you've known since elementary school. Social networking sites and chat rooms have literally opened up a whole new cyber-world to children. Online, they can be "friends" with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people from all over the globe, most of whom they've never met outside of a WiFi connection. And of course, as the tragic headlines constantly remind us, in this faceless cyber world not everything is kid-friendly and not everyone is who they say they are.
There are over 665,000 registered convicted sex offenders living in the United States. According to a study commissioned by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in every seven kids has been approached by a sexual predator online. That's 13% of children who use the Internet. Sex Offenders no longer need to leave the comfort of their living rooms to find and "groom" fresh victims. Rather, with just the click of a mouse, they can mingle in chatrooms, send and receive child pornography, and, of course, purview the walls of Facebook and the posts of MySpace like they might entrees on a dinner menu, replete with helpful personal information and pictures. Just ask the detectives who work online undercover or the producers of Dateline's popular To Catch a Predator -- in this fast-moving cyber-world, a predator can be anyone he wants to be: A twelve year-old boy, Jay-Z's agent, a modeling scout, a fourteen year-old girl. And teens, being the invincible bunch they are, always believe they'll be able to spot a poser or a predator a mile off on the computer, when the truth is they can't -- oftentimes until it is way too late. They've already been groomed.
Back in the mid 90's, in response to the headline-making abduction of eleven year old Jacob Wetterling of Wisconsin, and the sexual assault and murder of seven year-old Megan Kanka by her neighbor, a repeat child sex offender in New Jersey, the feds enacted a series of laws designed to warn the public of the presence of dangerous sex offenders and heighten community awareness on an issue that was literally moving in right next door to Joe the Plumber. Each state was charged with establishing a sex offender registry and implementing a community notification program. The theory behind which was simple: Knowledge is power. If a sex offender is going to be out and about in the community, people -- and more particularly, parents -- should arm themselves with information about their identities and whereabouts so as to better protect their kids. Without promoting vigilantism, making yourself aware of the scum living in your zip code that your children might very well come in contact with and warning kids appropriately can be a very effective crime-fighting tool. But in today's world, where every kid has a cell phone in their pocket and a computer in their room, it's just not enough.
My daughter was in the fourth grade when a fellow eleven year-old classmate was approached on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) by a 43 year old sexual predator who went by the screen name of "rooster69" and claimed he was a 16 year-old boy. It wasn't until he asked one of the little girl's friends to send him nude pictures that one of the children finally spoke up. I thought I had more time to ready myself on the dangers of the Internet. I was wrong.
So what's a parent to do? How can you make sure your kids are Facebooking with fellow thirteen year olds and not forty-three-year-old convicted sex offenders? I'm a big believer in the real world. Show kids the headlines. Let them read the stories of teens who disappeared or were assaulted after meeting up with someone they met online. The stories are out there, and there are plenty of them. Check out perverted-justice.com for a real eye-opener. Then talk to your kids about limiting the amount of personal information they post, particularly addresses and schedules; inappropriate posts and pictures; the new horrible growing fad of sexting; and finally, limiting the amount of "friends" they have and just what those friends are able to see. And as a parent you have to know of what you speak. So if you don't have a Facebook or MySpace yourself, you better thoroughly check it out. And if you do allow your kid access to a social network, it should be a number one rule that he or she "friends" you with unrestricted access, so that you can monitor what he or she is doing.
Then make sure you do just that.
© 2010 Jilliane Hoffman, author of Pretty Little Things
Jilliane Hoffman was an Assistant State Attorney in Miami between 1992 and 1996. Until 2001 she was the Regional Law Advisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, advising special agents on complex investigations including narcotics, homicide, and organized crime. Pretty Little Things is her fourth novel, following the international bestsellers Retribution, Last Witness, and Plea of Insanity. She lives in Florida.
For more information please visit www.JillianeHoffman.com and follow the author on Twitter. You can also "like" Jilliane on Facebook.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for free from FSB Associates. All opinions expressed are 100% mine. If you purchase a book using my Amazon or Barnes and Noble link, I will receive a small portion of the purchase price.