After watching dozens of online predators march into a house looking for sex with children during three separate "Dateline" investigations, you might feel moved to do something. One productive way to spent that energy is use the show as a launching pad for a serious talk with your children about the hidden dangers of the Internet. This page is here to help.
Child and family therapist Susan Shankle has worked with us to create a series of questions and discussion guides for parents and teachers. You'll also find links to the various "Dateline" investigations, including a recent piece about kids who reveal too much information on their personal blogs.
Many viewers and educators have e-mailed looking for copies of the "Dateline" shows: You can watch them online and find out how to order copies from the front page of the "To Catch a Predator" special report.
The following discussion questions are basic, open-ended, and meant for all ages. They are simply conversation starters, and are best asked immediately after watching the "To Catch a Predator" programs with children. Most important, Shankle said, is that adults must view this as an opportunity to open an honest dialogue and listen, not preach or punish.
"The main reason children don't tell their parents what is going on is because the kids are afraid they will get in trouble," Shankle said. Avoid judgments and histrionics, she said. "Kids stop listening when they're being lectured or yelled at — adults do too, nobody likes it. A realistic presentation of facts and good listening skills are what is needed, along with follow-up at a later time to make sure your points got across and continue to have value for the children."
1. Do these people (on the show) look like what you think perverts look like? Which one, if you passed him on the street would look most like your idea of a pervert? Which one would look least like one? Why?
This could lead to a discussion about how some of the men, like the one who showed up naked, seemed more suspicious than others. Starting simple may put children at ease. It may also help children learn that predators can look like anyone. Participate in the conversation by identifying the ones you thought looked more suspicious than others, and point out the differences in your perspectives.
2. Do you know anyone who has ever been solicited for sex on the Net? What did you do? What did he or she do?
Some children will answer this question, some won't. Forcing the child to tell you is not the point. Creating a comfortable atmosphere for your child to be willing to discuss the subject IS the point. You are not asking the child if he or she has been solicited directly, just if they know someone who has. Questions like this one help the child begin thinking about the subject and formulate plans if it DOES happen. You are also making the point that’s it’s okay for the child to talk with you about it without repercussions.
3. What are some things you can do to keep yourself safe?
Adults might be surprised at answers to this one. Children will think of things that adults would completely miss. Give the children positive reinforcement ("Great idea!") for suggestions. By doing this adults continue to create an on-going comfort zone for the children to share information. Encourage children to have conversations on their own about this question.
4. What can I do to help keep you safe?
Listen to what they say, make a list, put it on the fridge and DO IT, whatever it is, within reason, of course. Revisit the list periodically, ask children if there’s anything they’d like to add or subtract.
5. Let's just say you know for a fact someone is stalking you. What would you do differently on the Web? Would you remove anything from your blog?
This should at least get the children thinking without getting into power struggles. You can also ask them to show you the places they visit online, including their own blogs. To ease potential tension in that conversation, consider giving the kids 24 hours warning — at least the first time — so they have time to clean up their sites before you see them. Subsequent site visits can be a surprise, but if this is your first conversation about the topic, it's best to avoid a "gotcha" confrontation that will likely lead to less communication, not more.
As for general advice, Shankle says parents should be on the lookout for weird packages in the mail. Perpetrators will send gifts and even airline tickets to convince the child to meet in person. Reluctance to participate with kids their own age is also an important warning sign.
Isolated children who feel alone are at the greatest risk, she said — such as kids who want to run away, or who are in abusive situations either at home or at school. That's why dialogue is so important.
"Perpetrators hate involved parents," she said.
Finally, parents who feel they simply cannot talk with the children about this topic should find a qualified therapist in their area.
Shankle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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