Here's how to keep your daughters safe.
This week, Wired featured an article that made us want to lock away our daughters for years (or at least throw away their computers). It said more and more pimps and sexual traffickers are using the Internet to fill both the supply and demand sides of their business, recruiting troubled teenagers over online chat systems and social networking sites, then renting them out through adult ads on websites.
One self-described pimp named Marvin Chavelle Epps recruited a 16-year-old girl on MySpace. Three weeks after they met on the social networking site, they were arrested together outside a cheap motel in Sacramento, 50 miles from the teen girl's home. She was turning tricks. On her arm, a fresh tattoo showed bundles of cash and her new acquaintance's street moniker in 72-point cursive.
"It's Y2K pimpin'," Marvin said.
"This happens, and it happens a lot more than people realize," says Parry Aftab, founder and director of WiredSafety, which advises children on Internet risks. "We don't want to terrify parents. But if their kids are at risk, they're at more risk online."
In December, a task force commissioned by 49 state attorneys general concluded that the danger to kids from online predators is not very high. But Aftab adds that children who are already at risk of recruitment into prostitution face increased danger on the web, which offers a megaphone through which kids unwittingly announce their vulnerability to the world.
"They may post sexual images," she says. "They may indicate that they're up for anything. They may indicate that they're more mature, and know a lot more things than anybody around them appreciates ... And like a weak fish broadcasting to a shark, they broadcast their vulnerability to sexual predators, pimps and sexual traffickers."
How can we keep our daughters safe?
Momlogic called psychologist Dr. Lisa Boesky, author of When to Worry: How to Tell if Your Teen Needs Help -- and What to Do About It, for her advice on warning teens against meeting strangers online:
• Don't tell her not to meet strangers -- she'll only tune you out.
"Telling your teen to avoid strangers on the Internet doesn't work," she says. "The Internet creates a false sense of intimacy. If your daughter has been talking to someone online, she probably feels like she knows him. He's not going to be one of those people who would hurt her. No way. The only problem is that sometimes, many times, she's wrong."
• Instead, talk to her about how fake the Internet can be.
"You need to talk to your teen about the false sense of intimacy that develops online and how fake it can be, as well as the dangers that can happen," Dr. Lisa advises. This is a good time to talk to her about these sex traffickers who prey upon young girls on the Internet.
• Figure our WHY she's meeting strangers on MySpace.
Parents need to look at why their teen girls are vulnerable to this, says Dr. Lisa. "What is it that's missing in her life?" she asks. "What is it she's seeking from this person from MySpace? Once you figure that out, how can you help her fill that void in a healthier, safer way? Most of today's teen girls are desperate for a connection. Once they meet the first person who will give that to them, their judgment often goes out the window. Part of it is that they're not getting that connection at home or from friends. It's a normal need, but they're going about it in a dangerous way."
• Tell her about people who've been taken advantage of, raped or murdered as a result of MySpace.
Show her the Wired article. You may also want to use real-life examples of girls who been murdered, raped, or who've disappeared after meeting someone on MySpace, Facebook, or Craigslist. (Google 'Donna Jou' for starters -- she's a 19-year-old who went on a date with a guy she met on Craigslist last year and hasn't been seen since.)
"Don't tell her about these cases in a lecturing way, or a holier-than-thou way," says Dr. Lisa. "You want to come from an 'I'm concerned about this because...' angle. Parents should stay away from phrases like 'you should' or 'you shouldn't.' Try 'I'm concerned' or 'I'm worried' instead. The last thing you want her to do is shut you out."
• If you find out after the fact that your kid met a stranger, ask why.
"If they do meet someone online and you later find out about it, ask your teen what made her think this was okay," Dr. Lisa advises. "This might make you get out of your own head and into your teen's logic. They have a whole other logic about meeting people online than we do. There's no way to understand them unless you get a sense of where they're at -- not where they should be at. Keep in mind, it's part of the teenage years to feel invulnerable and quote-unquote unique. They truly believe 'this will not happen to me.' Parents need to show there are other teens just like them out there and it did happen to them."
How do you keep your teens safe on the Internet?