Gray Matters - The lion at the watering hole
Belfast — As anyone who spends any time with kids knows, there is never a dull moment (and if there is you're probably missing something important).
And anyone with middle- or high-school-aged kids are all too familiar with a pretty scary reality, and that is no matter how much you talk to your children about things like internet safety, they are still going to make mistakes.
I saw a perfectly good example of this last week, as I was scrolling my own Facebook news feed while in the midst of discussing my upcoming class reunion with some old friends. In between private messages, I scrolled down to see a typical photo that one of my 13-year-old relatives posted of himself.
Thinking nothing of it, I scrolled down a bit more. What I then saw on the comment thread was both shocking and disturbing.
Directly beneath the boy's photo, a person who appeared to be a middle aged man with no known connection to this young boy or anyone in my family asked the boy how old he was. There was no explanation of this person's relationship to the boy, or any other indicators that this person may actually have intentions that were not sinister in any way. Then I scrolled down a bit more, and saw that this boy, whom I know for a fact has had the talk about web safety with his parents on multiple occasions, revealed his age as requested.
My gut told me something wasn't right. As I happened to be sitting at my desk at the time, I asked my co-workers to come take a look at it to get a couple more opinions on whether my suspicion was correct. Both of them agreed that my instinct was spot on, and that this dude was more than likely up to no good.
And the fact of the matter was, the boy's parents were at an out-of-town hospital as their youngest child was recovering from a minor surgical procedure, they were not at home and likely were unaware of what was taking place.
Even with my gut feeling, and the assurance of those I trust that this was wrong, I still found myself second-guessing. Should I call the guy out in the comment thread on the fact that his question struck most normal people as odd, and risk possibly accusing someone of wrong-doing who was potentially innocent of such an offense?
After a couple of seconds of second-guessing though, my answer to my own question was an emphatic yes, as I decided it was worth the risk of looking stupid, at least in this instance. The way I saw it, if I'm wrong, great, and if I'm right, well, that person will be made aware that this boy has a family who cares, we are close by, and we will not allow the children in our clan to be victimized in this way.
So, in the public realm of a comment thread, I made it very clear what my relationship to this boy was, and also pointed out that the family does not know the man who inquired about the boy's age. I also clearly stated that I found that question concerning, and that I would be forwarding the comment thread to the boy's parents so they would be aware of what was going on.
What happened next was even more shocking. As I was getting ready to leave the office for the day, my sister Jess, who works in our front office, informed me that the boy had actually posted his selfie to a site called "Cutest Teens of 2014." There are hundreds of pages out there like it, but this one had images of adults and kids on it that would turn the strongest of stomachs.
The boy and his family had another nice talk about web safety as a result of this incident, and just as I suspected, the young fellow had no idea his picture was being posted to that particular site, telling his parents, "I thought it was just Facebook."
And as I found out from some of our local police officers, that is the case with most young teens who get caught up in these kinds of situations.
Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden highlighted a few problems our society and law enforcement face when dealing with these kinds of sites, which he said are typically created by adult predators who bank on the fact that kids will post their own photos to the site believing it's some type of game or popularity contest. The page creators enjoy anonymity as they prey upon these kids, and based on McFadden's prior experience with the Maine Computer Crimes Unit, he informed me that there are literally more web sites like this in the country than there are police officers.
"There is a high potential that predators will be monitoring this site and many others like it just as a lion keeps a watchful eye over a watering hole," McFadden explained in an email.
The way to keep our children safe is to stay informed ourselves, he said, but even that has proven to be a challenge. McFadden said when he took the chief's post in Belfast after his time with MCCU, he planned to host an internet safety forum for parents — one person showed up.
We all have busy lives, with jobs and parenting responsibilities, and I know personally how hard it can be to carve out time for everything else, but this is something that as parents, we have to make the time for it.
According to the MCCU website, one in five kids are sexually solicited online, and of those, about 10 percent of those incidents are ever reported to law enforcement. Even with such a small percentage being reported, reports of such crimes to the MCCU have increased "dramatically" in recent years.
On the education end, the Maine Attorney General, the Department of Public Safety, and the Department of Education have partnered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to offer a resource known as netsmartz.org. There is a link to NetSmartz on the MCCU website, and it is described as an internet safety resource with age appropriate materials aimed at kids in grades K-12. After viewing the site myself, I would encourage anyone with questions or concerns on how to broach this topic with their children to visit.
We can't always be everywhere, and we can't always know what our kids are up to. What we can do is take our power back as parents. That means educate ourselves, monitor our kids' web activity regularly, and whenever necessary, chase those figurative lions away from the web-based watering holes at which the children in your family congregate.
Because at the end of the day, your actions, efforts — and sometimes just your words — may be all that stand between your child and a potential predator.