wyrd thoughts: my other blog

"The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things...."

News and views about current affairs, religious freedom issues, and the fight against euthanasia. Also the latest about my cats, goats, sheep, geese and chickens, life in Menominee county, and whatever else is on my mind.

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Location: Wallace, Michigan, United States

"I'm Nobody, who are you?"

These blogs are the work of Nissa Annakindt, writer and farmer from Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

My poetry and prose have been published in: Struggle, Above the Bridge, HEATHENzine, Idunna, Marklander, Asynjur and PanGaia.

I also was editor/publisher of the Nine Virtues News in its print incarnation, which ran weekly for a while.

Contact me at: Nissa Annakindt PO Box 95 Wallace, MI 49893 USA

"My strength is the strength of ten, because my heart is pure."

Friday, April 15, 2005

Protecting Children from Sexual Predators

In the news last night there were several reports of missing girls. It's a fearful thing to know children are so vulnerable.

Children are at higher risk these days for a number of reasons. Low moral standards in our culture make it easier for the offender to believe that acting on his evil sexual impulses isn't wrong. Parents no longer seem to believe they have any authority over their children--- I've seen the mother of a toddler almost asking permission of her child before she decided not to buy a product he pointed out to her. It used to be that parents felt it part of their duty to discipline the child, teach him right behavior, and supervise his actions, including checking out his friends and forbidding the child to associate with the wrong sort of companions--- those who swore, stole and got in trouble at school for example.

One major modern risk is the almost universal idea that children ought to start using the internet from an early age. Most adults have difficulty understanding the risks and protecting themselves on the internet. How is it that we are willing to expose children of fourteen, twelve or even ten to such risks? We wouldn't allow such young children to go to a seamy strip club by themselves. Yet we seem to think that it's normal for such children to use the internet unsupervised, to have their own e-mail address, to use chat rooms and Yahoo groups and the like. This is more dangerous than sending the child to the strip club--- on the internet the typical sexual predator has an ignorant confidence that he can approach the child in complete anonymity.

The internet gives the illusion that we can pretend to be whatever we want and not get caught. We can make up our own screen names and internet identities after all. We can fudge about our age and occupation and many people will believe us at first. But we are actually giving ourselves away all the time. On the technological level it is possible for a computer expert to recover what we have been up to on the internet. That's why the moment a suspect is under investigation they take his home and work computers, and look at any public computers he may have used. On another level the internet pretender will usually be caught by his own words after a short time.

Here is an example: Imagine you went deranged and developed an obsession with the writer Stephen King. You might decide to use 'Stephen King' as your screen name, take out an e-mail account under that name, and use that name in postings in chat rooms and groups. You might put up a web site calling itself 'Steve King's site' and start a Yahoo group claiming you are Stephen King chatting with his fans. Now of course this is illegal and you could face criminal charges over it. But you will also be setting yourself up for ridicule. Every person has his own style of speaking and writing, and though you might start out trying to disguise it, you will get recognised. You may know that Stephen King himself, when he tried to publish under the name of Richard Bachman, got caught out when people noticed how Bachman wrote too much like Stephen King for it to be a coincidence. So before long, people would know you were a pretender.

The same thing happens with sexual predators. They may pretend to be a teenage boy, or a woman, in the hope of attracting underage girls. But observant people can tell before long that a writer who's made a few posts is a lot older than fifteen, or that a posting apparantly written by a woman is really made by a man. But unfortunately, less observant and suspicious people may be fooled long enough to be tricked into giving away important information.

What the sexual predator wants to do is connect a child's screen name to certain information--- an e-mail address, a real name, a home town, a school, and ultimately a home address and phone number. You can warn a child about giving this information out but a sexual predator might find it anyway--- he may do searches on your child's screen name and come up with a real name on one bulletin board, an e-mail address on the other, a hometown and a school name in still other places--- and then he will have the ability to capture the child.

Adults can also be victims of sexual predators on the internet. Some sick, weak, deranged individuals who can't have relationships with people in the real world may get a sexual thrill by sending porno e-mails to elderly strangers and imagining the reaction. Stalkers may use the internet in order to send threats to their victims without leaving fingerprints (though they do leave 'cyber-fingerprints' most are too ignorant to know it.)

If you or your child receive threatening, sexual or other harassing e-mail, don't respond to it and don't delete it. Leave it on your computer, and print out a copy with full headers. Take it to your local law enforcement immediately. This is doubly important if there is any possibility that the sexual predator knows your real-world location--- either your home, your workplace or your child's school.

Preventing the problems requires going against the tide and giving up on some modern technology. You will have to abandon all your current e-mail addresses that may be listed somewhere or another on the internet and get a new one. Guard this new internet address, only give it out to people you know in the real world. Lycos.com has free e-mail which you can set so you only receive e-mail from people on your list of known and trusted senders. Do this. It will not only foil sexual predators, it will stop spam.

When children want their own e-mail address, don't automatically give in. Ask them who they want to e-mail and why. Encourage them to write postal letters instead to communicate with cousins and distant friends. When your child is mature enough to start using e-mail, start them off sharing your e-mail address. Be sure and read all messages sent and received. After a few years of this your child will be ready for his own e-mail address, but be sure he knows that you will be watching his communications. Keeping the family computer in the TV room or other high-traffic area of your home is the best way to know what all family members are doing on line. (It will also help keep you from the temptations of viewing stuff, like porn, that you know full well is bad for you.)

Never use chatrooms, message boards or Yahoo groups. There is just no way to know who you are dealing with in these situations and you are likely to let down your guard and give out information you shouldn't. Yahoo groups are particularly hotbeds of abuse. Anti-stalking groups feel that Yahoo isn't doing enough to stop obvious stalkers from using or forming groups to attack their victims. They may ignore things as serious as death threats. In any case, even if Yahoo were to become hypervigilant, they can't possibly review every posting before it is made public and so abuse of victims cannot be stopped. If you or your child currently use chatrooms or boards as a social outlet, stop it and find an alternative. Be more active in your church, synagogue or temple, volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul or some other cause, and just say a few friendly words to everyone you meet and you will soon not even miss it.

If you are over 21, and are a freelance writer for example, and feel you must have an internet presence which includes contact information, consider your situation carefully before relaxing your safety rules. How safe is your home environment? If you own a gun and are sharing a household with a retired FBI agent and a gun safety instructor, you have a greater safety level and can take a small risk. If you live alone or with one other person and are an anti-gunner, you probably should not take any risks. If you must, after consideration, put up contact information along with your name on a web site, get a post office box. Never put up an e-mail on your site--- you will only receive spam and worse these days. Putting up a phone number can just lead to prank calls.

Children will have a hard time accepting the need for safety rules--- especially since our children no longer want to even call themselves children but 'teens' or 'young adults'. But the internet safety rules are wise at any age. They are the only way anyone, of any age, can take control over their internet use instead of having the internet control them. And children who take the mature approach and accept both the general safety rules for all ages and the special restrictions appropriate to younger users are setting an example that will help others see the wisdom of protecting themselves.