Do you know who your kids are chatting with online? How about who they're texting?
If you don't, you should find out, Jim Holler told an auditorium full of concerned parents, community leaders and social workers Monday night at Elkins High School.
A retired police chief from Adams County, near Gettysburg, Pa., Holler was in town to lead a training for adults about online sexual predators, sexting, cyberbullying and more. Holler has extensive experience working as an undercover officer to catch sexual predators who use the Internet as a tool to prey on children.
"Do you know that if I sign on to a chatroom as a 13-year-old girl that within one minute an adult male is going to talk to me?" Holler asked. "We have an unbelievable problem when it comes to child molesters and our kids. They are unbelievably skilled in what they do. You, as parents, need to become detectives."
Holler said child molesters are extremely knowledgeable about a variety of facets of kids' lives, such as what types of music they listen to, what kinds of clothes they wear and which slang words they use.
There are two broad categories of child molesters, Holler said - situational and preferential.
Five signs your child may be in Danger
- He or she spends a lot of time on the computer late at night.
- He or she turns off the computer when a parent enters the room.
- He or she becomes withdrawn from the family.
- He or she receives mail or packages from someone you don't know.
- You find sexually explicit photographs on your child's computer or cell phone.
"With situational ones, the sex doesn't necessarily have to be with kids," Holler said. "Preferential (child molesters) are the ones who are most appropriate to call pedophiles. They have a need for frequent and repeated sex with children."
"Both rape children, and both are equally bad," Holler said of situational and preferential molesters. "They both don't want to 'hurt' children. They think, 'they're bringing me satisfaction and I'm bringing them satisfaction.'" Holler said molesters believe they are providing "satisfaction" to children or teens by taking them shopping, showering them with gifts or paying for a day at the spa.
Many child molesters cunningly occupy positions of trust within the community, Holler said, so they have the potential to assault large amounts of children.
"They're often people you trust your children with," Holler said, before turning to the topic of sexting and cell phones.
The former police chief said cell phones are more difficult to monitor than computers, because parents can't simply require children to use them in common rooms where they'll visible.
"Cell phones are like a computer in your pocket," Holler said. Each cell phone should have a bedtime, he added, meaning parents should set a designated time - such as 8:30 p.m. - when kids or teens are no longer able to use their mobile devices.
Holler also defined sexting - "the sending or receiving of sexually suggestive messages or pictures" - for the audience.
"If you're talking about someone under the age of 18, really what you're dealing with is child pornography," he added. "The actions of sexting may stay with you for the rest of your life."
Holler outlined five things adults, teens and children should think about before hitting the "send" button on cell phones or the "post" button on social networking sites.
"Don't assume anything you send or post is private," he said. "Second, there is no changing your mind in cyberspace. Anything you send or post will never truly go away."
Holler also advised audience members to consider the recipient's reaction, to refrain from giving into pressure to do something that makes them uncomfortable and to remember that "nothing is truly anonymous."
So, what are several sure-fire signs that kids have been targeted by a sexual predator either online or via a mobile device?
Holler says parents should be worried if their children receive phone calls from numbers they don't recognize, especially late at night; receive gifts or mail from people they don't know; or become noticeably withdrawn from the family.
"That's a big red flag," Holler said.
To learn more about how to protect your children from online dangers, log on to www.missingkids.com, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's website.
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.