Chris Hansen is the Dateline's correspondent for the "To Catch a Predator" series. Since the Dateline reports have aired, the show has exposed over 200 hundred potential child predators in its stings. His book, released March 15, takes you beyond the broadcast into a shadowy world. Below is an excerpt.
On MySpace, social networking
Sometimes you get lucky. Every detective knows that, and Lt. Jake Jacoby and Detective Peter Charles of the Fairfax County Police Department, despite their years of training and experience, never take their luck for granted.
Their wake-up call to the dangers of sexual abuse cases driven by social networking sites like MySpace, cracked wide open for these two detectives because a 13 year-old was stuck by a bolt of fear and balked at getting into a car with a man she met online. “Marisa” (the detectives asked that we protect her identity) was at a swimming pool in a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, on August 24, 2005.
She had agreed to meet a man named Joey Dobbs—whose screen name was buttsecks just outside the pool. He was waiting for her in his car, but when she saw him, she panicked and handed her cell phone to a lifeguard saying, “Tell him you’re my mom and that he should never call me again.”
Police were called to investigate and after a few days, the case was turned over to Detective Peter Charles who was with the “PCASO” team, an acronym for the Protecting Children Against Sexual Offenders unit at the Fairfax County Police Department. The unit was not yet up to speed on the dangers of social networking sites like MySpace because it hadn’t hit any cases. “If you told me ten years ago that someone could go online and have access to information about thousands of kids, I’d never have believed you,” Charles said. Charles has years of experience with sexual abuse cases and crimes against children. He was aware of the trouble kids got onto with chat rooms and he knew about the peril of online sexual predators. What he didn’t know was that social networking sites were giving them unprecedented access to teens. MySpace, Xanga, Facebook, Bebo, had not really crossed his radar screen yet. Just after Labor Day, 2005, that all changed.
Detective Charles interviewed Marisa who explained the online chats that culminated in the scheduled meeting at the pool with Joey Dobbs or buttsecks. Marisa told him she thought Joey was the assistant of a woman named Jennifer Ash, whom she’d met on MySpace, a few days before the encounter at the swimming pool.
“Jennifer Ash,” a voluptuous looking brunette who claimed she was 21, described herself this way in her MySpace profile. “Born in the DC area, lived in LA for the last 10 years, and looking to make some friends. I have a boyfriend so I’m not looking for anything with any guys. SORRY GUYS!”
She said she wanted to meet nice girls in the Fairfax area. “Anyone that would like to go eat some sushi, go catch a movie…” Sounds simple enough, right? …Marisa had no way of knowing that Joey and Jen were one and the same.
Anyone can strike up a conversation with someone they see in a social networking site. Kids can restrict their profiles to just friends and people they know, but many don’t and, too often, they put way too much revealing information about themselves online. Even when a profile is restricted, a kid has the option of letting someone in who contacts them and asks to be included in their network of friends. An appealing picture, a friendly query, a similarity of interests or someone who just sounds “cool,” is often more than enough for kids to make exceptions and let someone into their site that they don’t, in fact, know.
There is real status for kids in having many “friends” in their extended network because it feels like proof of popularity. Someone with 150 “friends” has much more social status than someone with forty-five. At an age when it’s important to be popular, MySpace or other social networking sites are ways to prove that you belong and fit in. “At this age, when they often feel awkward, and unsure of themselves, even if they don’t appear like that—this is a way to say ‘Somebody is paying attention to me, somebody likes me.” Dr. Lisa Machoian, a psychologist and author of The Disappearing Girl, who specializes in adolescence. “I have heard over and over from teenagers, ‘I have to be this way with this group, and that way with that group, and if I say this I won’t be in that group. It’s exhausting for them. Online you can experiment with the more romantic and sexual part of yourself that you may feel inhibited to express otherwise.”
Parents who haven’t explored these social networking sites think they are as innocuous as their own high school yearbooks. For kids who are scrupulously cautious about their profiles, that may be true. But for adolescents who are seeking sexual experimentation, social networking sites are a stage on which kids can play, and play with their sexuality.
“Parents have always said ‘Not my kid,’” says Parry Aftab whose been trying to alert parents to the need to protect their children online. “Maybe the kid down the street, but not my kid. I don’t need to worry about it. Now they can go to MySpace and see their kid posing in their bra. They can see the kids they trust and think are wonderful with five bottles of beer in their mouth.”
Even good kids. What is shocking to parents—seeing provocative pictures of their kids or friends on social networking sites—is not surprising psychologists like Dr. Lisa Machoian.Girls, in particular, she says are given mixed messages about their sexuality.
The media is saturated with images of scantily-clad and overtly sexualized celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Brittany Spears. Teen sexuality is flaunted in the media, but a girl who acts on it can be labeled by her peers as a slut. But how does a young girl find the boundary between being a slut and a prude? The Internet is one way to mediate that.
Excerpted from: To Catch a Predator: Protecting Your Kids from Online Enemies Already in Your Home by Chris Hansen. Reprinted with permission of Gotham Books.