How can you protect your kids from online and in-person child predators?
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), in 2021 alone, there were more than 337,000 entries for missing children. The majority of these are runaways, who are at high risk of exploitation, but includes both family and nonfamily abductions. Equally troubling, in 2020, there were 21.7 million reports to the NCMEC’s CyberTipline relating to child sexual abuse images, online enticement of kids, child sex trafficking and child sexual molestation.
Strangers aren’t the only culprits of these crimes. Tragically, kids are at higher risk of abduction or sexual molestation by acquaintances, family and friends. According to the FBI, only 24% of actual kidnappings are by strangers, while nearly half are by family members. The balance, 27%, are by acquaintances of the victims. These latter two statistics add to the difficulty in teaching kids how to be safe.
Teenagers are at the highest risk of being murdered by a stranger. Finkelhor and Ormrod, in their “Homicides of Children and Youth, Juvenile Justice Bulletin,” pointed out that only 3% of murdered children under 12 are victims of strangers. In contrast, 87% of teen murder victims are killed by strangers.
Most kids who are sexually assaulted, however, are neither abducted nor murdered. In fact, 1 in 10 kids will be sexually abused before the age of 18, according to the organization, Darkness to Light. Stranger and acquaintance dangers come in many forms, and different concerns are more prevalent at each stage of development. So recognizing where these dangers lurk and how child predators operate is crucial to keeping kids safe. Second is making kids understand these dangers and how to protect themselves if they’re ever confronted.
Sex offenders are good con artists. They often groom kids and even the adults around children.
Shy kids are at higher risk for abduction and for sexual assault. Many predators look specifically for shy kids and those who lack self-esteem because they lack the assertiveness to speak up for themselves. If you have a shy child or one with low self-esteem, pick up some books on helping your child to overcome shyness and improve their self-esteem.
During the infant and early years, children can be kidnapped quickly with no need for coaxing. Leaving a small child unattended in a stroller or locked car for just moments is long enough for an abduction to occur.
When shopping, keep your child in sight at all times. For challenging outings, leave your child with a sitter, or use a child safety harness with toddlers. This gadget prevents small children from wandering off and reduces potential danger should parents become distracted.
As soon as your child is old enough to understand, read stories (ask your local public librarian for suggestions) and discuss stranger and acquaintance dangers to reduce your child’s risk.
Whether at home or away, young children should be supervised when they play outdoors. As they grow, keep close tabs on their whereabouts. Never allow them to play unattended in parks, wooded lots or secluded areas.
As your child grows
Pedophiles and other sexual predators come from all walks of life. Although kids of all ages are victims of child sexual abuse, most pedophiles prefer children nearing puberty.
Sexual abuse is most often committed by males, though not exclusively, and of all social and economic backgrounds. Pedophiles often look for access to kids by taking a job working with or near them, chaperoning or leading activities and clubs and coaching sports programs. Predators also befriend adults to gain access to a child. While not all men who take an interest in or get involved with kids through these means are predators, parents should nonetheless remain alert to the possibility.
Teach your child what areas of the body are off-limits to others and how to say “no” to someone who touches them in an uncomfortable way. Also, make sure your child understands that if something does happen, your child isn’t to blame and should tell an adult.
There are several changes in your child’s behavior that might indicate something has gone wrong, according to experts. These include withdrawal, unusual anger, acting out, fear of being alone or with a particular person or decreased interest in activities, especially those in which the molester is involved. If you notice unexplained changes in your child’s behavior, talk with your child to determine the problem, or seek professional help.
Preteens and adolescents
It might seem stranger dangers should lessen as kids grow. Instead, they are compounded as strangers and acquaintances prey on older kids by different, more stealthy and accessible means. Approximately 1 in 5 kids is solicited by an online predator, according to The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, reported February 14, 2020.
To keep your kids safe on the internet, purchase internet filtering software. Although filters are imperfect and don’t screen every inappropriate site, they can significantly reduce access to dangerous sites. There are also many phone and computer apps to help you monitor your child’s internet activity and their physical whereabouts.
Also, insist your kids only use chat rooms designed for their age group. This reduces their risk of involvement in adult discussions. Then, know which ones they’re using. Many kids’ chat sites are moderated to ensure no inappropriate or potentially dangerous discussion takes place. Be aware, though, that predators often lurk even on kids’ social media platforms as well as gaming sites and systems. Some child predators are known to pose as children to befriend kids. Most, however, know their adult age can be part of the attraction, particularly for teens.
So make sure your kids understand the importance of never giving out their name, address, phone number or other personal or family information to strangers on the Internet. Teach your kids that no matter how well they think they know an online acquaintance or how old the stranger claims to be, there’s no certainty the person is who he claims to be or what his intent. They should never meet someone they’ve met online without parental approval.
Finally, keep a close eye on your kids when they use the internet. Monitor the situation if an abundance of time is being spent on the internet or gaming systems.
Teens’ growing independence also makes them vulnerable to rape, which is committed by adult predators and peers alike. When alcohol and drugs become part of an adolescent’s social habits, the potential increases.
Teach your teen about the risk and how to be safe. Discuss date rape drugs and the risks they pose. Always know the details of your teen’s whereabouts. Enroll your daughter in a self-defense workshop, so she knows how to defend herself.
More tips to keep your kids safe
Getting across to kids the dangers that strangers and even acquaintances can present requires talking to your kids at their level. It’s also essential that kids know realistic ways to protect themselves. The following suggestions could help your child avert or escape a dangerous or threatening situation.
Your kids, even adolescents, should always tell you where they’re going (the exact address), who they’ll be with (first and last names) and for how long. If the time to return is undetermined, give your child a check-in time.
Your child should always walk with others, never alone, at night in particular.
Try not to scare your child but offer real-life incidents your child can relate to. If you or someone you know has been victimized, cautiously share this information with your child. Just do it in an age-appropriate manner they can comprehend and handle emotionally. Children, and even adults, tend to live in the moment and believe, “It can’t happen to me.” Sharing a real event that’s happened to someone you or your child knows can help bring home the reality it can happen to anyone.
Teach your kids to say “no” to adults they don’t know, and even to adults they do know if something doesn’t seem right.
Always keep doors locked, even when an adult is at home. Teach this by example. Never open the door to a stranger regardless of their appearance. If your child is home alone, your child shouldn’t even open the door for acquaintances unless parents have approved that particular person on that specific occasion.
Create a secret family password that only specific family members and friends would be given to pick up your child. If your child is approached and the password is not immediately relayed, your child should run away. This is true even if approached by a police officer.
If your child is on a bike and someone tries to grab him, he should wrap his full body (arms and legs) around the frame of his bike. Because the bike moves with the child, it makes it difficult for the abductor to make a fast getaway.
Kids should understand that if they’re being chased or they’re captured, they should defend themselves. Your child should scream loudly and continuously and attempt to run away.
Finally, when it comes to abduction, an ex-spouse, estranged grandparent or other family member is even more likely to be a perpetrator. More than 200,000 children are abducted by family members each year. If you suspect this is possible in your family, take every precaution while abiding by child visitation requirements. If you have a serious concern, seek legal advice on how to protect your child when a court order requires you to allow unsupervised visitation with the potential perpetrator.
What to do if your child is missing
Be prepared in the unlikely event your child disappears. Keep an updated record that includes your child’s hair and eye color, height, weight, blood type, phone numbers and addresses of friends and a recent photo.
Be sure to include several strands of your child’s hair with the roots and follicles attached for a DNA sample. Also, create an impression of your child’s teeth in a piece of sterilized Styrofoam.
According to federal law, a waiting period cannot be required for reporting missing children. If your child is missing, contact your local police department. Make every effort to search for your child while using caution not to disrupt evidence.