In my last article, "Your Child: A Sheep Among the Wolves," I discussed the dangers today's parents are facing with the Internet and child predators. Today, I would like to focus on some of the more daunting questions dealing with what a parent can do when preventive measures are too late.
The case with Hannah Anderson and the Irish 17-year-old that was cyber-bullied after an Eminem concert are prime examples of children and social media run amuck. Anderson should never have had access to electronic devices until she and her family had time to grieve together and the Irish teen... well, I don't even know where to start there.
So, let's look at a few scenarios. I'll tell you what my experience has shown, and I'll interject some statements from law enforcement and professionals that have dealt with similar situations.
What happens when your child has been abducted by a predator and you don't know who the predator is or where to look?
It is critical that you do not shut down or touch your child's electronics (assuming they are still at the house). The first thing to do is contact local law enforcement. If you are talking about an abduction, dial 911 (or 999 for you UK readers). Time is critical when it comes to abduction by a predator. Local law enforcement has the ability to seize your children's electronics in a way that allows them to capture the resident memory, active files and programs. That way they can do a forensic analysis and find out exactly who the child was talking to. Even if children have deleted their internet history, it will still be available for law enforcement.
Other than contacting law enforcement, what can parents do if their child has been cyber-bullied by classmates?
Discussion and education are important, and I have found that it can help children who have been cyber-bullied to discuss it with their peers in a controlled and supervised discussion so that it doesn't happen to them. It helps them realize that they are not alone and that it should not occur. Lanae Holmes, Senior Family Advocacy Specialist for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), states that the healthiest thing to do is use the experience of cyber-bullying to raise awareness in the community. Holmes goes on to say, "It's a good idea to host round table discussions in communities, schools and churches and ensure that something like that doesn't occur in the future. Cyber-bullying should be used as a teaching tool. Children fit into different cliques in real life, so they tend to do the same thing online. This is what can lead to cyber-bullying and with technology it almost instantly goes viral."
Holmes also states that one very good resource for parents needing quick answers to difficult cyber-related questions is NetSmartz411.org. You can ask questions in real format and get good results on both preventive and reactive methodologies.
The viral aspect of cyber-bullying is what makes it that much more damaging psychologically. We aren't talking about one or two people seeing a negative or defamatory comment about someone or something -- we are talking about everyone who is "friends" with one another seeing it. Let's face it, one way or another, nearly every child will be connected with everyone else in the school through social media.
"Kids are getting the same feelings, love, adoration, etc. that we get offline. The relationships might not be real, but the feelings are," says Holmes.
A cyber-bullying incident is also a good chance for you to find out how your children operate on the internet. Rather than asking them questions outright, take advantage of your children's desire to prove they know more than you. Have them show you how their favorite social media websites work and sit down with them to become educated. It's a chance for you to interact, to learn and also show that you are interested in your children's "virtual lives" as well as their real lives.
How should children be handled after a traumatic event (in terms of allowing them to be online, electronics, etc.)?
This is where the Hannah Anderson case comes into question. Privacy for a family is very important, even more so after a traumatic event. "Internet is part of their daily life and social outlet. She may have been reaching out for support and community validation," states Holmes. "She really should have been connected to professional crisis counselors beforehand. Being on the internet opens her up to scrutiny from the rest of the world and many children in today's society live out on the internet."
After a traumatic event such as abduction, loss of a loved one, natural disaster, etc., children should be isolated from all electronics, at least until they have had time to grieve in real life with family. It would be no different than a family not wanting to take phone calls or talk to anyone until they really had time to absorb what happened. Reasonably, this would be a week or two, but the time determinant should really fall under the better judgment of a professional grief counselor.
"She [Anderson] should have consulted with the adults in her life before going online at all," states Holmes. The first priorities should be to:
- Encourage families to connect with local professionals
- Engage with church communities and school communities to help deal with the trauma
If someone has e-personated you or your child, how can you clean up the mess?
"If they haven't already been contacted, [local] law enforcement should be contacted first. Especially if it's dealing with possible identity theft. People may be inclined to contact the FBI, but the first step should be to call local law enforcement. Local law enforcement generally has better tools to handle internet impersonation and identity theft. If it looks like it will be a much bigger case then the local authorities will contact us. The most critical part of cyber-crime is the element of time. The quicker that action can be taken the sooner the clean-up can begin," states Supervisor Special Agent Kevin Swindon of the Boston FBI Cyber Crimes Division.
When you have found out someone has either stolen your identity or is e-personating, both the FBI and NCMEC recommend you contact the administrator of the website to request removal. "Any reputable social website will have an abuse page or a reporting page that you can get in touch with the administrators," says Swindon.
I have contacted Facebook, Twitter and a few other sites personally to request removal of some e-personators as well as to deal with issues regarding cyber-bullying and identity theft. I have yet to find a website that doesn't respond within 24 hours (if not sooner). It is, after all, their business, and ultimately their reputation on the line.
How can you tell if someone is e-personating someone you know?
Most people will find out they are being e-personated from a friend who is upset -- who couldn't believe you said something (that you didn't say) or from a sudden influx of email and contact from people they don't know. My best advice is this. Search for yourself online regularly. Run a Google search on yourself at least once a month to see what pops up and deal with it immediately. It's much better to be proactive than reactive.