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Commentatary: Informing Kids of Internet Dangers

By Bill Reynolds

Buffalo, NY – Recently I had the opportunity to speak to some middle-schoolers regarding sex offenders on the Internet. While preparing for this presentation, I had an insight; there really is not much out there designed with children as the primary audience. If you browse the Internet or even contact the FBI directly, you will find out that what is out there is created for parents. As a psychologist, I knew this kind of material would be difficult to bring across effectively to children. So, here is an analogy that parents can use to help their children understand the need for internet safety rules.

Imagine the Internet as a forest. It is huge and you can find all sorts of things in it: beautiful things and grotesque things; safe things and dangerous things. If you stay on the paths, you can be led to all sorts of interesting and wonderful things. Stray from a path and you could get lost or even hurt.

A child should be nodding along up until the getting hurt part. After all, how could the internet hurt someone? Ask them, when they are in a forest, how often they think that an animal is watching them? They will likely guess a low number. You can say with confidence that, whether they knew it or not, most of the time some animal is watching a person as they go through the forest. Some of those animals are dangerous.

Hopefully you can remind your child that they have never gotten hurt by any animal while in the forest. Then ask them, why is that? If they don't come up with the answers on their own, tell them: because they were with an adult they knew; because they followed basic rules that pretty much assured their safety. The internet has its own version of dangerous animals or monsters if you'd rather. If people don't follow basic rules for safety, those monsters will try to hurt them.

At this point you will have to decide how much more your child can or should know with regard to exactly how these people can hurt a child. For most children, I would say that these people try to fool you into thinking they are a friend. And, once they think they have fooled you, they will ask to meet you in person. Once they can meet you in person, they will try to hurt you.

Now, with a new more readily understandable image of the Internet in place, your child is ready to hear some of the material available to parents with regard to basic internet safety.

There is one other point on this topic. It regards the term "Internet predator." This is a key phrase associated with this topic and it is the first time I've used it in this commentary. That is because I really do not like that phrase. For me, the word "predator" has a cool "danger-mystique" surrounding it. When I think of the word predator I think of wolves, tigers you know, cool, beautiful, dangerous animals. This is not the image I want to associate with sex offenders. They are dangerous. They could be physically attractive but they are certainly NOT cool.

So, what other phrase would I suggest? I believe the word predator is used because we think of sex offenders as hunting for their victim like a predator hunts its prey. In addition, the word predator suggests something that we must be aware of and guard against. There is another type of animal that we must guard against and hunts for its prey besides predators.

Parasites! Parasites have a specific prey or host that it hunts. We must take precautions against parasites or be attacked by them. Like a predator, a parasite can cause physical harm to its prey. In addition, unlike a predator, a parasite can cause lasting change in the behavior of its prey! For those of you who know someone victimized by a sex offender, you know that the physical trauma does heal, but the traumatic stress will change your loved one's behavior for years afterward. Finally, where we attempt to respect predators and live alongside them, I believe that most people want to stay as far away from parasites as possible.

So, I propose that we drop the term "Internet predator." It is not only a horrible allusion to predatory animals but I believe it is also inaccurate in both the image and the idea it conveys about sex offenders on the Internet. Instead, I would encourage the use of the phrase "Internet parasite." Personally, I think it is not only more accurate, it just feels right. I would rather associate the idea of an internet sex offender with a tick or a worm than with a tiger or a wolf.

Listener-Commentator Bill Reynolds is a psychologist at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

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