The Plot of an Online Predator

Do you know who your teenage son has been messaging online? How many pictures has your teenage daughter been emailing or texting to her new “friend” lately? Check out the movie Trust and you may begin to second guess the answers you thought you were so sure of. David Schwimmer, showcasing his talents as the movie’s director, has come a long way from his days on the sitcom, “Friends”. Trust captivates audiences with its no nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is story of a picturesque family living in the suburbs of Chicago whose members are about to be torn apart because of the actions of an online predator. Don’t think it can happen to you or your child? Trust’s storyline and the hundreds of real life criminal and court cases it loosely resembles may change your mind.

Annie, a fairly innocent and naïve 14 year old, takes center stage in this film. After being contacted by a 16 year old boy named Charlie online, a friendship begins to build. The ups and downs of daily life are shared, pictures are exchanged, words of encouragement are offered, compliments are traded, and eventually, intimate conversation begins. Over time, trust has been built between the two. Annie, experiencing emotions of affection from the opposite sex for the first time, is mesmerized. When Charlie later admits that he is actually a little bit older than he first stated, Annie is taken back, but quickly falls for the endearing apology that follows. Eventually the two meet in person, and if the shock of the reality of the situation isn’t bad enough (Charlie is much older than he ever suggested), what follows is even more horrifying. Charlie is an online predator. He has plotted and schemed this entire relationship with Annie from the get-go, following somewhat of an outline and plan to slowly gain her trust and eventually manipulate her into a situation where the two are alone. The raping of Annie is disturbing; Trust’s screenwriter, Andy Bellin, didn’t try to sugar-coat this scene at all, nor the scenes that follow, where viewers are exposed to an entire family unit that quickly unravels at the seams.

The emotional aftershocks of the predator’s crime truly grip the viewer’s heart. Annie’s character goes through the gamut of emotions and is eventually in so much despair about being raped and being tormented about it from kids at school, that she attempts to take her own life. Though the movie portrays the rape of a teen, sexual content and some violence, it conveys two extremely important messages for parents and young men and women. First, Trust exposes the fact that today’s culture is one that repeatedly and brazenly sexualizes girls of all ages and second, it highlights the need for greater parental protection.

So, what is a parent to do? How can they keep their tween or teen safe online? And, what should someone do if they feel that they might have exposed themselves to a predator? To answer these questions and more, the Good News enlisted the help of two experts to shed additional light on the subjects of online predators, teen safety and open communication between parents and children.

A Psychologist’s Perspective
Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, revealed how psychology plays a role in the actions of online predators and also those who fall for them, in addition to how important is it for parents and children to have an open line of communication. Lombardo began with exploring why younger men and women are gravitating toward friendships via the Internet and social media and why predators are using these venues as traps, stating, “It’s easy for teens and tweens to meet people online and be adventurous virtually. A young person cannot go into a bar, but they can easily go into an adult-oriented website or chatroom. Young people are interested in what they are not supposed to do – things that are new, intriguing and even rebellious.” Combine a young man or woman’s rebellion with the covert plans of an online predator and you have a recipe for disaster. “Today’s online predators are extremely smart and cunning. They know how to entice young women – make them feel important, beautiful and loved. They understand that young women tend to have a very fragile sense of self and they say exactly what the woman so badly wants to hear,” she added.

Lombardo went on to explain how research shows that the executive functioning area of the brain has not fully developed yet in a young person, causing them to be more impulsive and concentrate on immediate effects rather than the long-term effects or consequences of the conversations they are having or the pictures they are emailing. “Because it is easier to remain somewhat anonymous online, people feel more relaxed and say or do things they may not do or say if they were face-to-face with the person. They are more daring and even more reckless,” explained Lombardo.

So, how much of a role should parents play in the online activities of their teen or tween so that a situation similar to Trust doesn’t happen to their child?

“Parents should have open access to all of their children’s sites. It is optimal for parents to periodically look at what their children are writing and reading. If they have any concerns at all, increase the frequency that they look at their child’s Internet activity,” Lombardo shared. “Parent’s need to understand that these men prey on youngsters who have low self-confidence; they manipulate these women and leave them feeling powerless, angry, depressed, used and dirty.  It is very important for parents to let their child know that they are worthy of love and also make them aware of some warning signs that a relationship may be toxic.”

Lombardo pointed out these warning signs for parents and youngsters. She suggests that a relationship end immediately if any of these signs are present:

1. You find out that the person has been lying about something significant (like his or her age).

2. He/she is trying to coerce you to do something that you know in your heart is wrong (example, going somewhere alone and not telling anyone).

3. He/she is asking or telling you to lie to your parents.

4. You notice red flags, or sense something is not right.

“The key to prevention and treatment is to help young people have a strong and healthy sense of self. They need to believe in themselves, prioritize their values and lead a life in which they find meaning and purpose. This can include good, healthy friendships, being involved in activities that are meaningful to them (sports, music, drama, etc.) and knowing that they have unconditional love from their family.”

Most importantly, Lombardo added, was that young people need to know they can talk to their parents (or coach or teacher) about anything without getting in trouble – that the adult will love them unconditionally and help them in any situation.

A Judge’s Perspective
Retired Arizona Judge, Tom Jacobs, is a juvenile justice expert and founder of Askthejudge.info, an interactive educational resource that provides information regarding laws, court decisions and national News affecting teens. Before getting into specifics for parents and teens regarding online safety, Jacobs recalled a national case to give readers of the Good News a realistic and chilling look at the reality of online predators. He explained the details behind the case of Ashleigh Hall, a 17 year old girl who met Peter Cartwright on Facebook several years ago. Eventually agreeing to meet with him, Cartwright (really 33 years old, but posing as 17) instructed Hall that his father would pick her up near her home – a trick to get her into his car. Hall told her mother that she would be sleeping over a friend’s house that night. Her mother never saw her again.

Peter Cartwright was really Peter Chapman; he was accused of raping a girl at 19, but charges were eventually dropped. He did, however, receive a seven year prison sentence for raping two teen prostitutes at knifepoint. Chapman raped and strangled Ashleigh Hall and buried her in a field. He was eventually arrested, admitting to killing Hall and now serving a lifelong prison sentence. In remembrance to Hall, her friends developed “Ashleigh’s Rules”, a list of guidelines on Internet safety. Though the movie Trust shows Annie surviving the encounter with her online predator, countless young men and women, like Ashleigh Hall, do not make it out alive.

“The lesson learned through the Ashleigh Hall case and many others is that not every ‘cute, 14  year old boy’ is cute, 14 or a boy,” shared Jacobs. “Parents can prevent tragedies like this through early education about using the Internet and digital devices responsibly. Kids must be taught early on that nothing is private online.” When asked what his advice would be if say a young woman has begun a friendship online and now feels the person may not be who they said they were, Jacobs explained, “They should immediately tell a parent or another adult they can trust and confide in. I would advise her to stop all communication immediately with the online friend, trust her instincts and not play into the predator’s hands. She doesn’t have to be rude, which could exacerbate the situation, but ending it promptly is vital. It would be up to the parents about contacting the police, but if they do, whatever information she has saved (IM, email, or picture) can help investigators.”

When asked to “break down” online safety to parents and the world that is available to teens today, Jacobs stated, “When I speak to parents, I emphasize the need to get on the same page as their kids in cyberspace. It’s unlikely they’ll surpass them regarding digital technology, but they can try to stay up on the new technologies that their children are using. Only teched-up parents can properly supervise their children’s online life. A recent example is the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer in New York in September, 2011.” Jacobs went on to say that, “Jamey’s parents knew about Facebook, but didn’t know Jamey was also on Formspring and Tumblr. Kids may also have second and third accounts on Facebook – the parent only knowing about one. This, again, is where trust comes in and an open relationship with a parent. Once this trusting relationship is formed at a toddler’s age, it makes it natural and easy for the teen to come to his or her parent when needed. Consider the fact that toy computers, cellphones and games are designed for three year olds. That’s when the netiquette lessons should begin. Parents should know their kids’ passwords and what social networking sites they’re on. They should also limit the time allowed online for purely entertainment reasons – kids have to understand there is a real world as well as a virtual one.”The Good News also asked Jacobs what safeguards he would suggest to put in place so that a tragic situation doesn’t occur.: “Never agree to meet anyone you’ve met online alone or at night. Meet in a public place where you can check the person out first. Leave if you’re uncomfortable or the person is not as he or she described himself online,” informed Jacobs. “Any ‘creepy’ feelings should be listened to as a warning that something is up. As a parent, my rule would be no such meeting unless accompanied by a parent first. But, I know that’s unrealistic and kids are going to go through with an online arrangement. As long as they are, follow some of these safety precautions so as to avoid the fate of Ashleigh Hall and others.”

“Bottom line, parents need to impress upon their kids is to report any abuse online to them, to not respond to any bullying or inappropriate messages, and to keep copies of all messages if possible. If the situation worsens, the police will need evidence of any crime committed. They can’t simply act on a he-said, she-said basis. Again, copies of an email, blog post or text message is the best evidence for prosecution purposes. Use technology responsibly – otherwise there will be consequences. Once kids learn this at home from their parents, schools can then reinforce these lessons through their own procedures and policies about on-campus use of technology,” Jacobs added.

The fact is that the world is a very different place for today’s young adults than it was for their parents 30 or 40 years ago. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and new social networking sites seem to be popping up regularly. An open line of communication between parents and children and equipping them with Internet safety rules and netiquette can help prevent the tragic outcomes that have cut short the lives of so many trusting and naïve young men and women.

For more information on how to keep your family safe online, visit www.familysafecomputers.org. More information about Dr. Lombardo can be found at www.ahappyyou.com. Additional information on Judge Tom Jacobs can be found at www.askthejudge.info 

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