OnlineBuddyThe Internet has given child predators new hunting grounds: a place where they can pretend to be anyone they need to be in order to gain a child’s trust. But there is only so much that parents can do to limit exposure to potentially dangerous areas of the Internet. Aside from technological safeguards and a list of rules, the best thing moms and dads can do to protect kids from child predators is to observe.

When to Pull the Plug

There are some obvious signs that your child’s online buddy isn’t who he/she seems. For instance, if your child is posting nude or semi-nude photos of herself via chat, social media, and/or email, put a stop to it immediately and contact authorities. When obviously unsafe online activity occurs, take steps to keep your child from accessing the Internet: Remove his cell phone; secure other phones, laptops, and tablets; alert parents of friends; and above all, remain calm. Do not get angry with him or indicate in any way that he is to blame. A child’s trust is easily gained by a crafty, determined predator, and what he needs most at this point is reassurance that there are adults who love and protect him.

Five Not-So-Obvious Signs

Then there are signs that are not so obvious–behaviors on the part of your child or their online acquaintance that could indicate harmless communication among peers, but when they persist or are observed in combination with other signs, they could add up to a dangerous situation.

  1. The “friend” asks questions about your child’s physical attributes, such as height, weight, or bra size. While it is within the realm of possibility that a peer might innocently ask such questions, this is one of the signs that requires cessation of online activities and a thorough investigation into email history and account logs. For more information on monitoring your children’s computer activity, check out the NetSmartz Workshop site.
  2. The “friend” asks to meet your child in person. Even though this is the sign that Law & Order: SVU repeats every other week as the One Sign that signals “predator” in flashing red neon, it can slip by parents if the child’s behavior seems otherwise normal. Before you allow your child to go online unsupervised, let her know that she is to tell you if someone asks her this or any of the questions from sign #1. If she is old enough to go to the mall on her own, you still need to know who else is going; if you have any suspicions at all, check with those kids’ parents before she leaves home.
  3. Your child’s behavior changes. Is he suddenly spending more time online? Does he become angry when he is not allowed to use a computer or cannot get access to one? Does he dodge questions about his online activity? Does he lock the door when he is using his computer?
  4. Your child keeps her online activity secret. Closing a chat window, deleting emails and chat logs, and locking parents out of social media groups could be signs that she is communicating with someone who has told her to hide their relationship from her parents. It could also be typical teen behavior. Err on the side of caution by looking for further instances of this and other telltale behavior.
  5. Your child receives gifts. We are living in a material world, and like it or not, your child is most likely a material girl…or boy. A bribe from a predator could be anything, including any innocent trinket or Bieber-branded product of the moment. Items that raise a red flag include: webcam, cell phone, iPod, iPad, or anything that facilitates online communication and/or seems too expensive for a peer to afford.

For more information on keeping your children safe from predators, visit the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Special guest contributor:  Al Natanagara is a writer, journalist, and blogger whose career includes stints with ZDNet, CNet, CBS, LexisNexis, and law enforcement. He has done his time both in a cubicle and in the real world, but wherever he is, he always has one protective eye on his children.

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