Internet Sexual Predators and Minors
What can you do to protect your child from sexual predators online?
One in four US teen girls reported that they met strangers off the Internet. One in three boys admitted they did as well. While most of these “Internet friends” turn out to be another teen or preteen, that’s not always the case. Unfortunately, children have been murdered at the hands of their Internet child molesters and, not all sexual exploitation of children occurs offline.
Christina Long, a thirteen-year-old honors student and cheerleader, is your child, if you’re lucky. This isn’t one of those “those kind of kids” stories. This story proves that no family is exempt from danger -- all children are at risk. This is a call to arms for parents everywhere. We can no longer say “not my kid.” Christina Long is our kid. She had a troubled family life earlier, but was in a loving and caring home. Wake up! As an FBI officer once told me, “Go home and hug your children tonight, tell them you love them. Because if you don’t someone in there [pointing at the computer] will.” Amen.
The 2002 murder of a suburban Connecticut thirteen-year-old girl has caused many of us serious concern. We hear about online sexual predators and thousands of arrests of people who had previously been trusted in their community. But this case was different. This girl was murdered. Christina Long is the first confirmed death in the U.S. by an Internet sexual predator. Since then, unfortunately, there have been more.
What is also significant about Christina’s case was that she wasn’t a loner, or a quiet child. She didn’t fit the mold of our perceived victim profile. She was a good student and co-captain of her Catholic School cheerleaders during the day, and at night someone who met at least one stranger from the Internet – the man who killed her.
As we understand it, Christina led a double life online. According to reports, she had a Web site that warned those who saw it about her desire to engage in risky behavior. The Web site purportedly boasted that she was ready for anything. Had her father or her aunt (with whom she resided) or others in authority known about what the Web site said, perhaps the situation would have worked out differently. But we will never know.
You should know before we begin, however, that this case was atypical as far as what we knew before then about teens meeting sexual predators offline. Until Chrissy’s death, all cybersafety experts believed that the loners were at greatest risk of being lured online.
Christina’s death changed that. This girl was active in school activities, as a cheerleader, and was reported to have many friends. Most child victims reported before Chrissy were loners. She was also not lured in the typical way by someone targeting teens or preteens to molest them. She appears to have sought out sexual partners from people she met online.
Christina Long had a troubled family-life. Her mother had left her, and her father gave up residential custody to the mother’s sister. The aunt loved Chrissy dearly and the two were devoted to each other. From the time she took custody of Christina, the relationship appears to be ideal for helping Christina avoid online predators. So what went wrong?
The facts are unclear. Christina’s aunt, Shelley (who called her “Chrissy”), told me that she knew about online risks and regularly talked about them with Chrissy. She asked Chrissy to change her screen name, which her aunt thought might be provocative. Chrissy apparently complied. Shelley asked to see Chrissy’s profile, and asked Chrissy to make some changes at the site, to be less suggestive. Chrissy once again appeared to comply.
Shelley was very close with her niece. She would drive her to the Mall on a Friday evening and drop her off for a few hours. It was apparently while Chrissy was supposed to be at the Mall that she met the murderer and perhaps others as well. Shelley was watchful and had a good relationship with her niece. But even loving family members can’t be everywhere or spot the teen lies so frequently offered and believed.
This case perplexes me more than any other I have seen. Obviously, given what we have heard about the profile site, Chrissy changed it since her aunt had seen it last. But, what her aunt tells me leads me to believe that this case may be more about a teenagers acting out online and getting her bluff called.
Since Christina’s death we have seen many similar cases, where young teens seek out sexual conversations and suggestive behavior online. It’s not real to them, nor can it be. We need to remember that they are only 13 years old. With raging hormones and being bombarded with adult media and sexually explicit materials and communications online, it’s remarkable that they can rub two brain cells together. At risk teens are more at risk online. They may be seeking to belong, or get attention. But they are often walking blindly into very risky situations.
I hope to hold a summit of the leaders in online safety for children to come up with solutions and help for you, as parents. In the meantime, the best advice we have is what we have learned the hard way. Kids have more technology skills than judgment. What sounded good at the time may not be. And the “soul mate” they think they met online may not be a cute 14-year-old boy. He may not be cute, 14 or even a boy at all. All children are at risk. Every 13-year-old is a potential victim. Even yours.
It’s easy to want to point fingers – to find things that could have been caught earlier to avoid this tragedy. What could have been done to help avoid this horrible disaster? Remember as we examine the telltale signs, before you judge or blame anyone involved in this case -- hindsight is 20/20. Instead of looking for someone to blame, we need to extend our prayers and well wishes to the family, and learn from this case. We also need to remember that "there but for the grace of God go all of us." This could have happened to any of our families. And we need to use this time to talk with our children to prevent their following in these tragic footsteps. If others can be saved from this fate, this young girl would not have died in vain.