The runaway popularity of the book “Fifty Shades of Gray “underscores how much the nation’s sexual attitudes have changed during the Internet era. Today, nearly one out of every four online searches is for “adult” material. If pornography were a disease; it would be a pandemic. Its saddest victims are those who fall prey to sexual offenders.
No one can say for sure whether the ready access to pornography has increased the number of sexual offenders. But there can be no question that the Internet has made the creeps’ jobs easier and that can only mean one thing: more victims.
For every headline-grabbing story about a high-profile pedophile, there are tens of thousands of other cases known only to the victims and, possibly, to their loved ones and the authorities. A close look at the known cases of sexual offense reveals that parents have reason to be concerned about sexploitation of all types-from molestation and stalking to kidnapping, rape and murder.
Surveys have found that 5 percent to 20 percent of men admit to at least one instance of sexual aggression[i], and official records indicate that 1 percent to 2 percent of the adult male population will eventually be convicted of a sexual crime.[ii] (Only 4 percent of sexual offenders are women.)
The starkest evidence of the widespread nature of sexual abuse can be seen in the National Registry of Sexual Offenders.
According to the online registry, there are roughly 245 known sex offenders for every 100,000 population. But in some states the concentration of offenders is much higher. Nationwide, the top five states and the number of sexual offenders per 100,000 people are: Delaware (517), Oregon (473), Vermont (468), Michigan (403), and Wisconsin (391). Surprised? You’re not alone. The problem is much bigger and much closer to home than many parents realize. No area of the country is risk-free.
The state-by-state variation in the number of registered sex offenders may be due in part to the approach each state takes to dealing with the problem. Until recently, Minnesota took the most aggressive approach by civilly committing and confining paroled sex offenders to indefinite treatment. However, this month a federal judge ordered the state to reform its system because almost no one was ever released. Many of those offenders may now be set free.
Regardless of the number registered offenders in your state, keep in mind these are only the ones we know about. Many more predators go undetected because their victims are too young or too embarrassed; there simply isn’t enough evidence to charge the offenders with a crime; or they have managed to elude the authorities.
The number of sexual offenders understates the problem because many predators have multiple victims and they continue to prowl after their incarceration. The observed sexual recidivism rate is typically 10 percent to 15 percent after 5 years[iii], but for some offenders, the rate is much higher.[iv] It is influenced by such factors as the criminal’s gender, the victim’s gender and the offender’s relationship to the victim.
Are Your Children at High Risk?
Predators look for children who have lots of unsupervised time (e.g., kids from broken homes); kids who are struggling in school; and those who feel lonely, misunderstood, depressed. They befriend them; spend lots of time with them; offer generous tokens of friendship that are age-related: candy, tickets, video games, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, money and athletic gear. They might offer older kids high pay for help with odd jobs, or modeling jobs (i.e., photographed in skimpy outfits, provocative poses, or inude). They encourage kids to make their own rules and defy their parents. They try to engage in uninhibited horseplay to groom their victims for more intimate physical contact. They appeal to a child’s natural sense of curiosity by offering to show them pornography. If they succeed in compromising a child, they blame the victim and threaten to expose him or her in order to enforce secrecy.
Some perpetrators exhibit other forms of anti-social behavior, such as substance abuse and violence, but many count on the fact that there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary about them.
Sexual offenders come from all walks of life. The registries make clear that there is no stereotype. The perpetrators are men and women; young and old; rich and poor. They are celebrities, professionals, clergy, counselors, scoutmasters, coaches, teachers, janitors, music teachers, driving instructors, meter readers and babysitters.
The offender might be a stranger lurking around a playground; but more likely, it is someone you know and trust. In fact, in eight out of ten cases, they are relatives or close acquaintances.
The Internet is a sexual offender’s “prey ground.” Sexual offenders troll the Internet. They lurk on sites that cater to children, such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, often posing as a child under a pseudonym to gain access to personal information and photos. They might ask if your child plays sports and where the games are held, then arrange to meet them there. They’ll try to find out your child’s birthday. They may groom your child by sending pornography. (And, don’t count on finding out about it because kids are smart enough to erase their history log.) Worse yet, your child may unknowingly give high tech hackers access to their bedroom through the video cams on their computers.
Sex offenders can reach out and ‘touch’ your kids by cell phone. A pervert may use a cell phone to secretly snap a compromising photo of your child. (Think of what just happened to England’s Prince Harry). Or, he might try persuade your child to use “sexting” to send nude or semi-nude photos (an act that could lead to criminal prosecution). But cyberstalking is also a real possibility. A 2009 study the U.S. Department of Justice, found that one out four stalking victims reported cyberstalking. Of those victims, one in 13 said GPS technology and other forms of electronic monitoring were used.
Thousands of Internet sites offer products to track the whereabouts of your kids. But higher-end products in the hands of perverts can even listen in on your kids’ phone calls, read their text messages and access other personal information. Such spyware can be installed on a cell phone by anyone who borrows it. Once that happens, changing phone numbers won’t help because the app is on the phone itself.
How to Protect Your Children:
1. On the playground: Teach your children to be wary of strangers; tell them to say “No”, yell and run off when necessary. Warn them that a pervert might ask for directions or for help in finding a lost pet. He might wear a uniform to appear trustworthy. He might wear a cast to appear injured and harmless. He might ask for help in carrying a package. He might offer a treat or a ride. He’ll loiter near public restrooms. He’ll use any name that appears on your child’s clothing, backpack or lunchbox to speak as if he is a friend. He might claim there is an emergency at home and offer to drive your child there. (Give your kids a code word that they can use to determine if someone was really sent by you.)
2. In the home: Most sexual offenders know their victims. The creep might be a bachelor uncle; a socially awkward older brother; or, a neighbor whose house is a gathering spot for kids-a place with lots of toys, CDs, video games and a video camera. The offender could be a housekeeper, a babysitter, a music teacher or handyman-anyone who has easy access to your home.Always check references.
If someone seems inordinately interested in your children, that should concern you. If you notice bruises on your child, if his or her behavior suddenly changes, and if he or she avoids contact with the other person, that should raise a red flag. Eliminate any doubts you might have about people who regularly visit your home. Install a concealed webcam monitoring system.
3. At the daycare center: In choosing a provider, use due diligence. Make sure the facility is licensed; that its staff is pre-screened, well-trained and supervised. Ask about the turnover rate among staff. Find out the provider’s policy on discipline and the handling of sick children. Make sure the provider is in compliance with basic health and safety regulations. Ask about the nature of the playtime activities. Check its record with the Better Business Bureau, and ask for references from current customers. Occasionally make unscheduled visits.
4. On the Computer: Children need to be computer savvy, but parents must make sure their kids are safe, too. Your home computer, tablets and cell phones should be in an area of the house where you can observe how they get used. You should know the passwords of your children, and the computers should be equipped with software that blocks access to objectionable sites.
The great majority of today’s kids have social networking accounts, but too few use proper privacy controls. In a 2009 study by Cox Communications many of the kids’ profiles could be viewed by anyone (including sexual predators). Half of the kids gave their real age; most uploaded photos of themselves; nearly half revealed their school location; and one in six listed their cell phone numbers.
To protect your children online consider using an application like Safe Eyes Parental Control Suite for PCs or Mac, the #1 rated parental control software. It blocks access to inappropriate Web sites; monitors your child’s online interactions; tracks, blocks, and records instant messaging, email, and social networking communications. You also can set time limits or schedule web time for your kids.
Your children should be at least 13 years old before using Facebook. (In fact, Facebook limits accounts to children 13 and older.) Their privacy settings on social media should restrict access to their friends and you should be included in their circle of friends. You should check their posts and pictures. Note the clothing, hairstyles and background of photos of individuals for signs that they may be older than claimed. Anyone significantly older than your child should merit a closer look. Check him out with a free app: Find Sex Offenders for Free.
5. On the cell phone: Ask if your phone service has parental controls for blocking mature content and downloads of objectionable material. Ask for detailed billing to see a list of inbound and outbound calls. If necessary, install an application such as Mobile Spy for Blackberry and Android phones to see a detailed list of your child’s text messages, phone calls and picture messages. Also install a cell phone tracker app so you can locate your child by GPS.
6. Make sure your children know they can always talk to you about any suspicious activity. You can’t be there at all times to protect them but you can be there to listen and respond when they have concerns. And, if something does happen, let them know it was not their fault and report it to the authorities. Be their advocate.
7. Share this article with the parents of your children’s friends. Let them know about the scope and scale of the problem. Let them know you are concerned and vigilant and that you would appreciate being told if a problem comes to their attention.
[i] Grotpellier & Elliott, 2002; Koss, 1987; Lisak & Miller, 2002
[ii] California Office of the Attorney General, 2004; P. Marshall, 1997
[iii] Hanson & Bussie`re, 1998
[iv] Harris et al., 2003