A Mid-Ohio Valley Parent Magazine reader suggested that I add to last month’s column on protecting children from sexual abuse by discussing some concerns more specific to teenagers. This is a good point. As children age, the parents become less of a constant presence and the children require less supervision. This growing independence for teens is natural, but also presents some risks. While we can’t always be present to guide our children safely through life, we can teach them, negotiate with them and provide open lines of communication.
First of all, it’s important to establish with your children a “game plan” for safety. Before he goes anywhere, your child is to ask for permission and its agreed he won’t go without permission and you must know how they are getting there, who is going, and when they will be back. Further, if plans change you are to be notified. As a parent, you are entitled to this information!
Parents should not assume their children know the following, but should plainly talk about them:
- Use the buddy system when away from home. No wandering around the mall alone, etc.
- Secrets are not something you keep from your parents. Parents are included in the “circle of trust.” No ifs, ands, or buts. This is for their safety, not because you don’t have your own life and you’re just nosy.
- Do not accept gifts, money, drugs, or rides in cars from anyone unless your parents know about it.
Secondly, parents should not assume that adults who function as leaders in children’s activities are inherently trustworthy. Introduce yourselves to every adult who plays any kind of role in your child’s life; youth ministers, coaches, scout leaders, assistant coaches, teachers, friends’ parents, etc. Many sex offenders work their way into trusted positions to take advantage of that trust freely given by parents.
The virtual world that children explore is in many ways more difficult to monitor, and unfortunately it offers more opportunity for sexual predators. Parents should keep themselves constantly informed of their children’s online activity. Beyond encouraging your children to live up to the family’s expectations for trustworthy behavior, you need to be internet savvy. You need to know how to check their activity. On most computers with Internet Explorer, click on the “favorites” icon that has a star in the upper left corner. At the top you should see three tabs, favorites, feeds, and history. Click on the “history” tab and you will be shown a list of the last two week’s internet activity (I think that’s the default setting for time limits). If the history is gone, someone is deleting it. That indicates a mystery needs to be solved.
A 2010 study by McAfee internet security company indicates that about 1 in 4 teens delete their online history and text messages to keep their parents ignorant of their online or texting behavior. This is dangerous; considering that over half of teens in the study report they have given out personal information online to someone they don’t know personally, including personal photos and/or physical descriptions of themselves (24 percent)! Twice as many girls than boys have shared photos or physical descriptions of themselves online.
So in addition to internet activity your child’s cell phone should also be monitored. If they have internet on their phone, check the history. Know who they are communicating with. Only let your children have a Facebook account if you are accepted as a “friend” so you can monitor activity. If they have an iPod with wireless internet access, check the history! Randomly check the phone records for number of texts sent in a month with the number of texts on your child’s phone. If they don’t match up, then some are being deleted. This is a red flag that something inappropriate is happening. Monitoring is your right as a parent who is looking out for your child’s best interests. Your child may be offended by what they see as privacy invasion. Inform them it’s not because you don’t trust them as much as you don’t trust other people “out there.” A minor wounding of the pride is better than being victimized or getting in trouble for illegal activity.
Which brings me to “sexting.” In West Virginia, sexting(sending sexually oriented pictures or messages via mobile phone text) can result in state felony charges, including indecency with a child and creation, possession and distribution of child pornography. Sexting is an increasingly popular trend. A boyfriend asks his girlfriend to take a pornographic picture of herself with her cell phone camera and send it to him. She does this, and her boyfriend immediately distributes the texted picture to all of his friends. Next thing he knows he is being charged with distributing child pornography and the girl is the center of a scandal. Not fun for anyone, especially the parents.
A national study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy indicates that 21% of teenage girls have sent or posted online nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves. Kids (and adults) will say and do things online or via texting they would never do in the presence of an actual person or group of people. Unfortunately, once it’s out there is no taking it back. Talk to your children frankly about their choices. Encourage them to “think before you hit send.” Think about the real world consequences of what is done online.
If your child has been involved in something sexually abusive or inappropriate, you must take action. Remember that if your child has been molested by someone, that person most likely victimized other children in the past and will continue in the future unless stopped. Encourage your child to talk freely with you and don’t criticize or make judgmental comments. Assure the child he or she did the right thing in telling you and let them know it’s NOT their fault. When the offender is an adult, or someone three years older than the victim, the offender is at fault! Call the police or the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800 4 A CHILD. Get your child into counseling. Talk to the school counselor at your child’s school. These agencies and people will take action to protect your child and provide support in dealing with the trauma.