January 2007 – Thirteen-year-old Justin Berry was an honor roll student and a soccer player when he got his first offer from a man who had been chatting with him online, while the young teen sat in front of his Web camera.
Using instant messaging – which as its name implies, allows people to communicate in real time, with little or no delay – the older man told Justin he would pay him $50 if he would sit without a shirt in front of the Webcam for just three minutes.
“I figured I took off my shirt at the pool for nothing,” he told The New York Times in an eye-popping article. “So, I was kind of like, what’s the difference?”
That was six years ago, and after the man had helped him set up a PayPal.com account, Justin began a five-year, mini-career performing for viewers for money. According to the Times, Justin reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars for letting online predators watch him shower, undress and even engage in sexual activities.
By the end of his trip into the sordid world of “camwhores,” as such “performers” are called, Justin had formed a pornography company, was having live sex with prostitutes and was hooked on drugs.
Predators in the bedroom
When this corruptive process began, according to New York Times’ writer Kurt Eichenwald, Justin was already troubled. His parents had divorced when he was young, and with his father absent from his life, Justin had a longing in his life for paternal affection.
The computer became Justin’s refuge. He “had never run with the popular crowd and long ago had turned to the Internet for the friends he craved,” said Eichenwald. But on the day when he was first propositioned, the young teen’s “fascination with cyberspace would change his life.”
In fact, the Internet has changed nearly everyone’s life, and for millions of people, it’s for the better. Online, people can communicate instantly, pay bills, conduct research, or find the latest ball scores, the best route to grandma’s house or the weekend weather.
But like any realm, the Web has its predators waiting to snatch up the unsuspecting, and children and teens are especially vulnerable. It’s shockingly simple for someone like Justin to jump into the darker side of the Internet community.
“Entry into this side of cyberspace is simplicity itself,” said Eichenwald. “Webcams cost as little as $20, and the number of them being used has mushroomed to 15 million … . At the same time, instant messaging programs have become ubiquitous, and high-speed connections, allowing for rapid image transmission, are common.”
Parents have long warned their children about talking to strangers and walking in the wrong parts of town. However, many adults have been slow to recognize that, while they are cooking supper or mowing the grass, dangerous people – pornographers and sexual predators – can access their kids while they sit in their own bedrooms.
Porn pages in the millions
Part of the danger of the Internet is that with a few clicks of the mouse, a young person virtually throws open the door of his or her own house to the outside world. Much of that world is lurid and pornographic.
According to the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families (NCPCF), an evangelical non-profit organization that seeks to help Christians deal with a sexualized culture, the danger of porn is omnipresent.
“Though a valuable information resource, the Internet caused explosive growth for the pornography industry,” the group said on its Web site.
Statistics bear out the fact that there are plenty of sordid places to look. Although the exact number is unknown, some estimates put the number of pornographic Internet pages at more than 420 million.
The NCPCF said: “[The Internet] is essentially the fastest, cheapest and most anonymous pornography outlet available. Only certain commercial sites require a credit card to enter, and most sites display hardcore ‘teasers’ through which computer users connect to pornography sites within seconds.”
And our young people are connecting. According to Family Safe Media (www.familysafemedia.com), the largest group of viewers of Internet pornography is children between the ages of 12 and 17. The Washington Post cited a study in 2004 that said more than 11 million teenagers view Internet pornography on a regular basis.
However, young people are not always looking for porn initially; most of the time it appears that they simply stumble across it. Enough Is Enough, another pro-family group battling the effects of porn, cited a study conducted by the London School of Economics: “Nine out of 10 children between 8 and 16 have viewed pornography on the Internet. In most cases, the sex sites were accessed unintentionally when a child, often in the process of doing homework, used a seemingly innocent sounding word to search for information or pictures.”
In its study, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (www.kff.org) put the figure of those teens who “have accidentally come across Internet porn” at 70%. And it’s not easy for many of these kids to shake off the experience, either. The study found that 45% said they were “very” or “somewhat” upset by the experience.
Getting immersed in pornography is not the only danger. According to NCPCF, “The most dangerous aspect of the Internet is its use by pedophiles. Child molesters and predators use the Internet to pose as youngsters themselves to communicate with other children, expose them to pornography and arrange to meet them in person.”
The numbers bear out this assessment, according to Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth, a study released in 2000 by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Produced in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center (www.unh.edu/ccrc), the report said about one in five children received a sexual solicitation while online.
In addition, one in 33 children received what was called “aggressive sexual solicitation,” meaning “a solicitor who asked to meet them somewhere; called them on the telephone; sent them regular mail, money, or gifts.”
More ominously, the study found that only 25% of the young people who encountered an online solicitation for sex told their parents, meaning the vast majority kept the incident to themselves.
“While many are able to glide past these encounters as mere litter on the information super highway, some experience them as real collisions with a reality they did not expect and were distressed to find,” said Online Victimization. “Some of these young people report being upset and afraid in the wake of their encounters and have elevated symptoms of stress and depression.”
One bright spot is that sexual solicitations from online predators appear to be decreasing. In 2005 the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center conducted a new survey. Researchers found that about 13% of children ages 10 to 17 said they had received an unwanted invitation to sexual conversations or activity, down from the 19% figure from the earlier survey.
However, Ernie Allen, president of the NCMEC, said the 13% number is “still way too high,” and the likelihood of children being exposed to online pornography as well as harassment and bullying by peers is increasing.
Since “[c]hildren and adolescents are the most criminally victimized segment in our society,” the NCMEC made numerous recommendations at the conclusion of Online Victimization. Among them was the dual recommendation that parents be made fully aware of the dangers posed to their children and teens by the Internet, and that kids themselves be trained to navigate the Web safely.
Protect your children
→ Keep computers in heavy traffic areas in your home.
→ Know your children’s online friends.
→ Check the content of storage devices.
→ Check history logs often.
→ Spend time with your child when they are online.
→ Ask your child to show you what IM (instant messaging) looks like.
→ Get to know and use the “Parental Controls” provided by your Internet Service Provider and/or blocking software.
→ Maintain access to your child’s online account, and randomly check it.
→ Find out what safeguards are used at your child’s school, the public library and in others’ homes.
DVD provides helpful tools for parents
Brian and Julie Dixon both of whom teach school in California, were shocked when one of them discovered that a 10-year-old cousin had been visiting hardcore pornographic Web sites.
So they decided to do something about it, and produced The Internet and Your Kids: Healthy Habits for a Safe Online Home. The one-hour DVD is an extremely helpful walk-through that provides parents with a practical guide to protecting their children from the dangers of the Internet.
The DVD takes parents to the computer through screenshot tutorials, and the instructions are easy to understand, even for adults who are not computer savvy. For parents who want to know more about Google, peer-to-peer file-sharing, iTunes, online gaming and gambling, e-mailing, chatrooms, instant messaging and popular sites such as MySpace.com, The Internet and Your Kids will prove to be an invaluable resource.
The DVD is available by calling 1-800-983-4DVD.