National Cyber Security Month: Protecting Children from Online Predators
By Michael Pittaro, assistant professor, criminal justice at American Military University
Sex offenders, particularly those who prey upon children and adolescents, are among the most feared criminals in society because they are masters in the art of manipulation and deception. Many possess sociopathic personalities and tendencies and they are incredibly difficult to profile because they often present themselves as charming, trustworthy and upstanding members of society.
Because of society’s heightened awareness, sexual offenders have moved well beyond school playgrounds and community parks to cyberspace. This provides them with a veil of secrecy and anonymity to get them well out of the range of the public’s watchful eye. I know this to be true because I have worked specifically with this particular group of offenders for nearly 25 years.
The challenges of combating this particular type of crime must start in the home, with parents being vigilant about the online activities of children and teens. Education and awareness are the key ingredients to preventing children from being victimized.
Law enforcement has created specialized divisions and units to intercept and intervene in this type of online criminal activity. Several legislative acts that criminalize online child sexual exploitation and victimization have been passed since the 1990s.
Are we making progress preventing these crimes?
The answer is both yes and no. The sophistication of the sex offenders’ online tactics are increasing to the point where the bad guys continue to be a few steps ahead of the good guys. There are underground criminal networks with specialized codes and language and offenders are known to take all the precautionary measures necessary to discreetly cover their whereabouts and online activities.
Some sexual offenders will use intimidation, threats, or force whereas others will use gifts, praise, and money to ensure that the victim does not report the offending. They are experts at reading people and search out weaknesses or vulnerabilities in their victims to exploit. Power and control are common traits, but the narcissistic, self-centered behaviors are what make them particularly dangerous. Most think they are more intelligent than their victims and, because they perceive themselves as being so intelligent, they feel that they can outsmart and outwit the police and keep others from suspecting them of any wrongdoing.
We could introduce more laws or make our existing laws more stringent, but in my professional opinion, it will not deter sex offenders. As a group, they lack the impulse control to truly manage their sexual desires and will go to any extreme necessary to fulfill their deviant needs regardless of any law that may be in place. I advocate for prevention through education, awareness, and preparation.
The FBI receives more than 2,000 missing children reports every day. A child in the U.S. goes missing every 40 seconds. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice and the world Almanac state that the chance of any child becoming missing as being 1 in 42.
Therefore, a parent’s best assurance for the quick and safe recovery of a missing child is to have a complete profile of the child on hand that includes fingerprints, photographs, medical records, and, if possible, a DNA sample. The first hours after a child becomes missing are the most critical for safe recovery. Below are some basic tips to minimize the chance of victimization:
- Talk to your children about online victimization.
- Placed any computers in a common room in the house, not in your child’s bedroom.
- Utilize parental controls provided by your Internet service provider and/or blocking software.
- Always maintain access to your child’s online account and randomly check his or her e-mail and online activity.
- Find out what computer safeguards are being used by your child’s school, the public library, and at the homes of your child’s friends. These are all places where your child could encounter an online predator that are outside of your normal supervision..
- Understand that, even if your child was a willing participant in any form of sexual exploitation, he or she is not at fault and is the victim. The offender always bears the complete responsibility for his or her actions.
Also instruct your children to never:
- Arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met online
- Upload (post) pictures of themselves on the Internet or any online service that can be seen by people they do not personally know
- Give out identifying information such as their name, home address, school name, or telephone number
- Download pictures from an unknown source, as there is a good chance there could be sexually explicit images
- Respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or harassing
- Chat with anyone they do not know as they may not be the person they appear to be
About the Author: Professor Pittaro holds a Master’s in Public Administration, a bachelor’s in criminal justice, and is currently a doctoral candidate (PhD -Criminal Justice). He has 25 years of criminal justice field experience, and he has been teaching for the past 11 years. In addition, he also serves as a criminal justice author, editor, subject matter expert, and owns Guard A Kid of the Lehigh Valley, LLC – a business committed to protecting children against sexual predators and other childhood dangers. Professor Pittaro has written extensively on the subject of cyber criminality. He is the coauthor of Crimes of the Internet.
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