Today, almost every young child has access to a computer, game console, tablet, or smartphone that’s connected to the Internet. Being so connected has changed the way kids interact with the world. Most adults have a difficult time keeping up with their own personal cybersecurity, let alone ensuring their children are safe.
That’s why, over the past several years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in cyber-dangers targeting children, including cyberbullying, exposure to taboo material, online predators, and revealing too much personal information and inappropriate photos on social media. Plus, they have access to the dark web, where drugs, weapons, and anything else is available for sale to anyone who gains access.
While investigating the disappearance of a juvenile in May 1993, special agents from the FBI’s Baltimore Division and police detectives from Prince George’s County, Maryland, identified two suspects who had sexually exploited several juveniles during a twenty-five-year period. Investigators determined that the adults were routinely using computers to transmit sexually explicit images to minors and, in some instances, luring kids into engaging in illicit sexual activity.
Further investigations and discussions with experts, in both the FBI and private sector, revealed that computer telecommunications were rapidly becoming one of the most prevalent techniques used by sex offenders to not only share pornographic images of minors but also to identify and recruit children into sexual relationships. In 1995, based on information developed during this investigation, the Innocent Images National Initiative (IINI) was created to address the illicit activities conducted by users of commercial and private online services and the Internet.
A few months after reporting to the FBI’s field office in Syracuse, New York, I participated in my first IINI investigation in the fall of 1995. During the investigation in Baltimore, investigators examined the subjects’ computers and discovered they were trading images of child pornography with individuals across the country.
The Baltimore investigation revealed that three hundred and fifty individuals were using the Internet to trade images and communicate, which was a shock to many people in law enforcement. One of the individuals identified during the investigation lived in the Syracuse area, and we had enough probable cause to obtain a warrant to search his residence.
Our suspect was a medical professional with a wife and two teenaged children. When questioned, he denied ever looking at these types of images and communicating with other bad guys, but a forensic review of his computer told a completely different story—he had thousands of images of children stored on his computer.
He later changed his story and admitted he did look at the photos, but only for a medical research project. He said he kept the project a secret from his office and wife. He eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges and helped us track down other criminals.
Not too long ago, child pornography was difficult to obtain in the U.S. because the risks were too great. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service and FBI did a tremendous job of identifying suspects and apprehending them. These well-publicized sting operations greatly reduced the abhorrent activity—until the Internet came along.
The illegal activities started on online bulletin boards and then moved into chat rooms on AOL and Internet Relay Chat, where these monsters found other like-minded predators with whom to communicate and trade. When the Internet really became popular during the 1990s, we started seeing a major increase in the number of online predators. For agents working these kinds of cases, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
I worked dozens of these cases while I was assigned to Syracuse. It was a dark and dirty world, and I’m not going to go into detail about the images floating around the web. They would make you sick and give you nightmares.
When I was transferred to Nashville, Tennessee, and promoted to a supervisory special agent of the FBI’s cybercrime squad there, I gave my first presentation about online safety to a group of inner-city kids between the ages of eight and twelve.
My real estate broker’s husband mentored many of the kids, and she asked if I would speak to them about cybersecurity. It was the first time I’d talked to a group of kids in quite a while, and I don’t think I realized how accessible computers were to them in 2007. When I walked into the room, I scanned the audience and thought most of them were probably too young to have access to the Internet.
I figured I’d better come up with some entertaining stories about bank robberies and fugitives. But then I asked the kids how many of them had searched the Internet. About two-thirds of the audience raised its hand. Then I asked how many of them had MySpace accounts, which was the most popular social media at the time.
Almost all of them raised their hands. I jokingly asked the kids how they had access to a MySpace account because you were supposed to be thirteen or older. They laughed at me. Their answers to my next question surprised me. When I asked how many of them knew more about computers than their parents, about half of them raised their hands.
After doing dozens of cybersecurity presentations to children over the past several years, I have become convinced that most parents are happy to have their children at home on computers instead of running around on the streets.
As I gave more and more presentations to the community, I noticed a trend: Most kids believe they know more about computers and the Internet than their parents. And what’s even scarier is that most of their parents don’t even know what they’re doing on the Internet. In 2007, our advice to parents was to keep a computer in public places in the house so they could walk by and see what their kids were doing.
Under no circumstances, we said, should a child be allowed to have unsupervised use of a computer in his or her bedroom. It was pretty good advice for a few years—until laptops became more affordable and game consoles and smartphones allowed kids to connect to the web from almost anywhere.
From 2007 until 2011, I supervised the Innocent Images Task Force for the FBI’s Memphis Division, which included the area from Memphis to Nashville. We had three full-time FBI special agents and about a dozen full-time task-force officers assigned to the work. The task force officers were personnel from state and local agencies who were deputized by the U.S. Marshals Service and had the same legal authority as the FBI to investigate federal cases.
This program helped the FBI tremendously, as our mission to combat online child predators were only as good as our working relationship with other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. During the years in which I ran the task force, we had so many cases that we were only able to investigate the worst of the worst.
One year, my team did an especially outstanding job and arrested and prosecuted nearly thirty child predators. The subjects came from all walks of life, including attorneys, pilots, social workers, police officers, doctors, truck drivers, and clergymen. A lot of these bad guys were trading illicit photos and some of them were hurting kids.
As effective as we were that year, though, I remember when a former FBI director acknowledged how big the problem really was. He said we couldn’t have made a dent in the crisis with even eleven thousand special agents assigned to these types of crimes. But we didn’t have eleven thousand agents; in fact, we didn’t even have eleven.
After working these types of horrific cases, I made a mission of educating parents about the dangers of child exploitation on the Internet. My message wasn’t always well received, however, and sometimes I was even told I was being an alarmist.
But I was simply presenting the truth from where I sat as an FBI agent. At times, I became extremely frustrated. I’d talk to an elementary school principal about educating her teachers, and she’d tell me her teachers didn’t have time and she couldn’t force them to sit through my training. Sometimes, the principal would suggest that I contact a parent/teachers’ association.
I quickly learned, though, that those kinds of groups are more concerned about fundraising and supporting teachers’ needs. It infuriated me that schools were teaching children how to use computers and the Internet, but they didn’t think it was important to teach them about the dangers. One of my former agents made the best analogy I’ve heard about what it’s like to let your kids have unrestricted access to the Internet.
He said, “You’re better off giving your kids the keys to your car, a gas card, and a case of beer, and pointing their GPS toward Bourbon Street in New Orleans.”
I did make many presentations to parents, and I would provide them with actual case studies and go into painstaking detail explaining how child predators befriend children on the Internet and spend weeks, if not months and years, grooming their victims.
The bad guys build rapport with kids and often pretend to be children themselves. They’ll find common interests and hobbies with children and befriend them. Eventually, the predators introduce pornographic images to the kids, which is done to trick the children into thinking these kinds of photos are normal.
Then they introduce photos of adults engaged in sexual activity with children and try to persuade the children to send nude photos of themselves. The ultimate goal, of course, is to actually meet the child for sexual contact. I know it’s terrifying to think about, but there’s sadly no shortage of adult men who want to engage in sexual activity with underage boys and girls.
As horrifying as it sounds, I felt it was important to share this warning with parents. Our task force found these monsters in chat rooms, where our officers would pretend to be underage boys and girls. They’d spend hours online with child predators, and, once they sent us pornographic images of children, we tried to set up face-to-face meetings with them.
As soon as they exchanged illicit images of kids, it was a federal crime. We wanted to get them off the streets so they wouldn’t hurt any more children. The predators almost always took the bait and arranged to meet us. I recall one occasion when the bad guy we arrested had a duffel bag with him. Inside the duffel bag where a stun gun, handcuffs, lubrication, and sexual devices. Being a father of two children, it was absolutely terrifying to investigate these crimes.
During my presentations with parents, I always asked, “Is it important for your children to understand the difference between real friends and virtual friends?” Almost every parent agreed that it was a very important distinction to make. Then I asked the parents how many friends they had on Facebook. When I asked the parents if they had five hundred, nearly every hand in the room went up.
It would go from five hundred to a thousand to one thousand five hundred friends. One parent jumped up and said, “I have two thousand friends!” It appears there are a lot of adults who can’t tell the difference between real friends and Facebook friends; if a parent can’t tell the difference, how are we supposed to teach our children?
Our kids have near-limitless opportunities to interact with virtual friends on platforms their parents have probably never heard of. When my own children were in kindergarten, I explained that the Internet is fun and a great tool for learning, but that there are dangerous places and people on the Internet who would like to hurt them.
Whenever I said that in a presentation, though, there was always a mother in the audience who would object. She’d say, “I don’t want to scare my children by telling them about all the bad things in the world.” Then I would have to explain that refusing to at least make them aware of the threats put her kids at much greater risk.
Having your children understand basic threats on the Internet is a critical first step. As a parent, the day you provide your child with an Internet-connected device, whether it’s a computer, tablet, or smartphone, you need to have a serious talk with them. You need to realize that, when your child gets online, he or she has access to excessive violence, hate speech, risky or illegal behaviors, and pornography.
You can find any of the first three on YouTube in only a few minutes, and pornography is so readily available on the web now that your kids are going find it no matter how old they are. You can invest money in blocking software like Internet filters and pornography restrictors, but children are smart enough to find ways around it—or they’ll just go to a friend’s house. Talking to your kids about the difference between right and wrong is the most important step.
If your child comes across something offensive and they come to you, then you have probably succeeded as a parent. Make sure you listen attentively and try not to judge them too quickly. Tell them it’s not their fault and ask questions. One day, when my son was about nine years old, he said he wanted to talk to me.
Instantly, I recognized that something was wrong. He wasn’t immediately forthcoming, but he eventually admitted that he’d seen something on the Internet that was inappropriate. We talked about it, and I assured him that it wasn’t his fault. I was relieved he trusted me enough to talk about it, and then I explained the dangers of the Internet to him once again.
I recently gave a cybersecurity presentation to a group of parents of middle school students at an exclusive private school. There was one mother who was shocked by what I was telling her, and she finally asked me, “So, you’re saying that I’m a bad parent if I don’t know who my daughter is talking to on the Internet?”
I replied, “Of course not. It’s impossible to monitor our children twenty-four hours a day. However, if your daughter meets someone on the Internet, and she’s never met that person before, and then they decide to meet at the mall and you don’t know anything about it, then you’re a bad parent.” I explained the best course of action was to sit down with your kids and have a serious discussion about the dangers of the Internet.
I could write an entire book on Internet safety for our children, and every parent should make it a point to access the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website, www.netsmartz.org, which offers great resources, presentations, and games for kids to learn about online safety. Our kids must realize that there are bad guys on the Internet and they should never provide identifying information to people they don’t know.
They must know the difference between real friends and virtual friends, and we as parents must be aware of what our kids are doing online. Most importantly, you must provide a home environment in which your kids can come to you with questions and concerns. Listen to them without judgment. It’s the only way we’re going to keep our children safe.
HOW TO AVOID BECOMING A VICTIM
*Parents must understand that there are no rules on the Internet, and that your children can be exposed to pornography, inappropriate material, and hate speech. Keep this in mind when making the decision about giving them access.
*Always be aware of what your children are doing online, including what they’re searching for and which websites they’re visiting. Install content filters if necessary to be extra safe.
*Realize that there is no shortage of people on the Internet who are looking to harm children.
*Make sure your children understand the difference between real friends and virtual friends.
*If your children have their own social media accounts, their usernames should never be their actual first and last names. That information is too easy to find on Google and other search engines, making it easy for online predators to find them.
*Children should be educated about never providing their name, address, date of birth, or telephone numbers to anyone on the Internet.
*Children should never send photographs of themselves to strangers they meet online.
*Teach your children that anything they write and post on the Internet, including tweets, comments, photographs, and videos, is probably going to stay online forever.
*Set house rules and limit your children’s time on computers and other devices. Talk about rules and the consequences of breaking them.
*Teach your children not to open email from strangers, not to respond to hurtful or disturbing messages, and not to arrange face-to-face meetings with anyone they meet online.
*Make sure your children know they can come to you about questions and concerns about material they see on the Internet.