My friend Julia rang me this morning. Her daughter goes to school with my son. They have been close friends since Kindergarten. They are now both 11. We have had conversations with both children about being safe on the internet. A few days ago that conversation paid off for Julia.
Her daughter emails her friends and chats online in what is supposed to be a safe, child-only chat room. In addition, Julia uses the most advanced filtering software of its kind. No four letter word of any type is getting past that baby. There are strict log-in procedures in the chat room. It was recommended by many users. Her daughter has been using it for many months with no problems. She mostly chats to people she knows. Until a few weeks ago.
A 10 year old boy named Sammy replied to a thread the girls had started about the singer, Pink, and her recent tour of Australia, claiming he had been to one of her concerts. Julia’s daughter began chatting to him about bands they liked and favourite TV shows. Sounds fine so far, right?
Well, last week, Sammy started asking Julia’s daughter more personal questions – What do you look like? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you wear a bra yet? Do your parents let you go out alone? Would you like to meet up? These are not questions 10 year old boys would ask. For the most part, they are too busy making poo and fart jokes to worry about what someone looks like. If you can be as gross as (or grosser) than them, then they think you’re cool, but that’s as far as it goes.
About a year ago, Julia had a very frank conversation with her daughter about pedophiles. Very frank. No flowery language or euphemisms were involved. She told her daughter exactly what pedophiles do to children and how they can lure them into dangerous situations via the internet. She gave her a list of questions/comments that were deemed inappropriate to be raised in a chat room. Her daughter took the conversation very seriously and mentioned Sammy’s change of tone immediately.
Julia reported what she saw as a breach to the chat room administrator who reported it to the police. Turns out Sammy is a 35 year old man who lives with his mother. He hasn’t been convicted of any crimes against children but perhaps that’s because he hasn’t yet been caught. You want to hear the most chilling part? He lives two streets away from Julia.
Naturally, we are all freaking out. Even though we don’t know the exact address my husband wants to knock on every door in the street until he finds him, so he can rough him up. Julia’s husband feels the same. I want him to feel the fear a parent feels when their child is potentially endangered in this way – nauseating, gut-wrenching, bone-shaking, blind panic. And unadulterated terror.
But none of us fit the role of vigilante; we are not well-suited to pouncing on people from the shadows. So we will do what we have done all along; we will be honest with our children about the evil that lurks in the hearts of many men. We will not frighten them, we will arm them with the tools they need to defend themselves, and let them know that they can speak to us about anything, at anytime.
This was a close call for Julia. She is having trouble sleeping because of it. She wants to forbid her daughter from chatting online but realises it is a big part of her social network. “I don’t want to deny her something she enjoys but on the other hand, I can’t handle the worry of who else might be lurking, pretending to be a young boy,” she says.
I agree that it was a close call but stress she should be proud of her daughter, that she has shown herself to be astute and trustworthy. “This time,” Julia says. “But what about the next one?” I assure her that it is unlikely there will be a next time but feel like a hypocrite as all I want to do is throw our computers into the trash and put parental blocks on everything, even the microwave. I want access to be denied to all these sick perverts seeking to take a young person’s childhood away. But I don’t have the power. All I can do is arm my child with knowledge, and be vigilant, and hope that it is enough.
“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers”
said Tennyson in The Lotos-Eaters.
All I can do is pray that he is right.