Chat Online

Chat Room Safety Advice

Dr. Sigrid McMahon
Griffith University

Much has been written about hazards on the Internet, but if your child is going to get in tribulation online, chances are that it will be because of something that happens in a chat room. Don’t be worried. Millions of children engage in chat and instant messaging every day and the vast majority are not wronged. Still, a number of the leads reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) CyberTipLine.

NCMEC are “online enticement” cases and the majority of those began in a chat room. However, the fact that they represent a small fraction of kids online is of no appeasement to those children or their families.

Most of these cases, involve a similar tactic. The perpetrator lurks in a public chat room looking for a child he thinks is vulnerable. I use “he” because most sexual predators are male; however, there have been cases of adult women using the Internet to solicit underage boys & girls. When he finds someone who seems susceptible, he invites the child into a private area of the chat room to get better acquainted. Next comes private chat via instant messaging followed by e-mail, phone and finally, an in person meeting.

The routine isn’t unique to the United States. In a separate interview a former director of London-based Childnet International ChildNet, painted nearly a duplicate picture based on his organisation’s work around the world. The United Kingdom recently experienced its first reported case of a child that was seduced into a sexual relationship by an adult met online. The girl was 13 and the man –who is now serving a five-year jail sentence, was 33.

In this UK case, first contact took place in a chat room and was followed by a daily swap of e-mail, including some in which the male sent the girl sexually explicit photos. There were also regular conversations on a cellular phone and, finally, a series of meetings at his residence, which eventually led to sexual intercourse. After the third meeting, the girl told her parents who contacted the police. As is often the case, force wasn’t involved. The vulnerable girl gave in to the man’s advances.

Children who are relatively quiet in online chats are often more targeted. “Predators like to go after kids who tend to express agreement in chat rooms but not say a lot because they know that these kids are vulnerable.” It’s like children who are on the side lines on the play ground. The ones playing the game are already getting attention. The ones that aren’t are more likely to be lonely and happy for whatever recognition they can get.

And the predator doesn’t start by sexually approaching the child. His first move is to create a comfort level, typically by posing as a younger person about the same age as the intended victim. Early in the process, the predator may even send the child a photo of “himself” to encourage the child. Of course, it’s not really a photo of that chatter, but of another child around the same age as the victim, often engaged in a happy social event with friends, parents or siblings.

Sexual predators are often very experienced at their crimes. “They know how to manipulate children. They know their likes and dislikes and they know what buttons to push.” And they are also patient. It can sometimes take months to turn contact from a chatroom into a sexual victim. And, even though these online relationships typically start with the child thinking that he or she is chatting and talking with another child, it’s not unusual for the predator to eventually let the child know that he is older than he might have first said. Using phrases like, “how do you feel about a `big brother’ or an `uncle,’ ” the adult moulds the child for the eventual meet up where his true age will become clear. Some kids will cut off the relationship as soon as they realize they’re dealing with an adult, but others will be thrilled by it. Besides, it’s not unusual for predators to be attempting to seduce several children at one time so even if that kid goes away, they have other victims instead.

In some cases, the child continues to believe that the person they’re chatting and emailing with is a child up until the meeting. The adult might tell the unknowing child, “My dad will pick you up,” so they will feels safe getting into the adult’s car.

The chat itself is only a starting point. In many cases, the child and the adult are together in the chat room for a very short time and continue the conversation via e-mail and other avenues, including cellular phones. In the UK and Europe, it’s very common for teenagers to have mobile phones and, unlike the US, many of those phones have short message system (SMS) capabilities.

“It’s very popular for kids to swap text messages on their cell phones.” Would-be paedophiles may use the same technology to reach children. Another problem with mobile phones is that kids can use them away from home where parents will have no clue as to who they’re chatting with.

If you have children who chat online — and if you’re a parent you probably will –you might be wondering how you can look after your kids. The answer is to try and keep in the know with what your kids are doing while online. Be especially cautious if they always keep the door shut or turn off the monitor the moment you walk in the room. Still, that may not be a sign of any serious problem, but of your child’s wish to have privacy while chatting with other children.

Talk with your children about Internet safety. Your kids may not like the discussion, but it’s worth having and worth repeating now and again, even if your kids tell you that they’re sick of hearing about it.