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Archives Keeping youth safe from explotation online

By John Miner
Co-Director, Diocesan Respect Life Office

He is real but he is not who he appears to be. He does not care about you – your life, your feelings, your thoughts, your dreams, your future. He only cares about his own little world. He has various motives: money, self-gratification, entertainment, or just a desire to be someone besides who he really is. His goal is to get you to do things that you would not do willingly until it is too late.

I have met him. I have executed hundreds of search warrants on his homes, his businesses, his computers, and his phones. I arrested him more times than I can count. He sits in prison sometimes, but sometimes nobody knows who he is. I have met his victims. Sometimes they don’t even know yet how their lives have been turned upside down, some of them do and manage to set into the storm and plow through it; some of them feel defeated and turn to despair. If he (or she) sounds familiar, and maybe a bit diabolical, that’s because he (or she) has, as Russian novelist Solzhenitsyn described in The Gulag Archipelago, the line separating good and evil passing through his heart, and it is overwhelmed by evil.

For seven of my 27 years with the New York State Police, I was an investigator with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC), a national network that works closely with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). I don’t know how many times I have seen how computers and technology enhance whatever they touch – the good for the better, the bad for the worse. One of my certifications is something called Undercover Chat. We spent a week in a computer lab going into Internet chat rooms and starting or engaging in random conversations with unknown people on the web. It was quite common, when posing as a teen, to be “approached” by persons who would propose all kinds of behavior, most often including a meeting “IRL” (in real life). The typical time into these conversations was less than ten minutes, and many times they were nearly instantaneous when logging on. Social media has taken precedence over chat rooms, but the predators remain. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter are just more sophisticated means of making connections and creating online personas.

Recent events in the news and in our North Country yet again put a spotlight on criminal online behavior and have prompted questions like, “how could someone be so ruthless,” “what could I have done,” “how can we recognize the symptoms,” and “how can we stop this?” Experts abound. According to public records, I have been court-recognized as one of those “experts” in at least one area of digital forensics, but the real answers do not reside in computer examinations or even in criminal investigations. The human heart is the place where these things take place. I write that because any technology-related suggestions or guidelines that may be helpful are, by their nature, inadequate. That is because technology is only a multiplier of problems that are as old as original sin. Suggestions are not completely useless, however.

Here are some general observations:
• Bad attracts worse – “regular” pornography is merely a step toward more extreme forms. I put “regular” in quotes because, contrary to what our current “enlightened” culture suggests, regular pornography is insidious and always has victims, including the viewer. In our computer examinations, our standard question was not “is there pornography?” but “where is the pornography?” It was not often difficult to locate. “Sexting” (which often qualifies as child pornography) can evolve into “sextortion,” in which the victim is extorted for money under a threat of exposing the photos to friends or family.

• Kids who have unsupervised access to the Internet ALWAYS access harmful content. It is a window to the world and all its nature, including the fallen part. A moral sewer is the best analogy. An unmonitored smart phone is a tool with which most adults have problems, and children/teens have no business in that world.

• Personal communication is unprecedented in our time. That means that the wolves have unprecedented access to our children. There was a time in my memory when, if you wanted to communicate with my child, you could not do it but through me. That time has passed for any child with a cell phone. If we don’t strictly monitor that communication, an intruder can step in. We cannot raise our children the way our parents raised us because that was a world that no longer exists.

So, what can be done? In the scores of presentations I have done over the years for parents, there was a consistent pattern: the parents who showed up were, by and large, the parents who already were paying close attention to their kids’ online behavior. For certain though, things have gotten more difficult due to the ubiquity of cell phones even among pre-teens. I would personally advise parents to go against the grain and do not let your child have a cell phone. If your teen has a phone, parents must have monitoring capability and use it. Some good apps for this are KidsGuard, Net Nanny, Norton Family, Qustodio, and Kaspersky Safe Kids, but there are many more. Part of responsible parenting is to have full and unquestioned access to any device being used by your child. The key is to make it a prerequisite to having the phone in the first place.

Another thing that is crucial is to pay attention to the most vulnerable around us. These are the people who the wolves target. What makes certain kids more vulnerable? The most common situations are family violence, breakups and divorce, creating situations in which children are looking for something better. Those who would victimize others look for a missing piece and move in to fill it.

Evil acts are all around us, and those acts of the criminal sort tend to be more obvious to us. When the perpetrator can hide in anonymity, the depths to which he can stoop can be frightening. I will not leave this topic, however, without the thing that everyone needs: hope. Hope counters despair. Hope perfects the memory. Even when it seems like there are no more alternatives and no good choices, hope can lift a soul. That is perhaps the most important thing we can all provide to those who are vulnerable and become victimized.

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