Knowing the popularity of Facebook and how open people are about their lives when they use Facebook, criminals have taken to Facebook as a tool of choice. Recent news stories have chronicled criminal use of Facebook to target and burglarize homes of people who use Facebook to share their vacation plans, or to mine for personal information in ID Theft cases. In the context of child safety, however, predators and molesters are going even further and utilizing Facebook to assist them with virtually all aspects of Victim Selection and Targeting, Grooming, and Entrapment. In short, here is how it works:
Predators can and do use Facebook as a virtual catalog of victims, flipping through victims and viewing their publicly visible profiles until they find someone they are interested in. Then, they try to get “friended” by their prospective victim. The ability to send a personal “friend request” message, coupled with the fact that most people leave their list of friends visible to the world, makes it easy to use the “I’m a friend of so and so, can I friend you?”
Once the predator has friended their prospective victim, then it is easy for them to use the knowledge the gain from the victim’s Facebook activity, self-description, posts, and friends, to gain the necessary information to easily groom them for sexual abuse. “Oh you like hiking – so do I – I am totally avid hiker. Too bad your friends and parents don’t like to do it. We should get together and hike sometime…” Facebook is a virtual goldmine of information about someone from which it is simply way to easy to fabricate shared interests and note emotional vulnerabilities, both of which are key tactics in grooming.
Finally, once it comes time to entrap the victim and blackmail them into not reporting the abuse, a common way to do so involves taking photos or video of the sexual abuse and threatening to distribute them throughout the internet or to the victim’s friends. Obviously, the easy access to a list of the victim’s friends provided by Facebook makes this extremely easy.
Knowing the above, here are five tips to help your child predator-proof their Facebook experience. A note for parents who might be inclined to say “no Facebook account until you are 18”: I think the key here is to teach our children how to use Facebook and any social media responsibly (after all it is not a matter of if, but of when, they will start to use it) so that they can use it as a tool to manage their reputation and keep in touch with known friends and family.
1. Get off the radar screen of predators. Predators and molesters can’t “shop” for who they can’t find. So go to the Account; Privacy Setting; Basic Directory Information section and set everything to “only friends” except “see my friend list.” Set that to “only me.” If your kids want to connect with a known friend, they can still send the URL link of their Facebook page by email (if your kids still remember what email is). That way predators cannot directly access your child’s friends or even find out who they are, both while they are “shopping” or even if they happen to be friended.
2. Agree on who to “friend”. One of the most important messages your children can get is that Facebook and other social media is for them to keep in touch with their existing friends. It is an extremely poor and dangerous way to make new ones. As such, I recommend that parents and children should review friend requests together to make good decisions about accepting new friend requests. At the very least, children should be taught to only accept friend invitations from people they know and have seen in real life PRIOR to the friend request.
3. Get private. We can do a great job teaching our children about being selective about accepting friend requests but we have no control over how other parents teach their children. This is the pitfall of the “friends of friends” setting on any of the privacy controls. They make our children’s information to any predator who has infiltrated a very loose “network” of their “friends.” Go to Account; Privacy and set all of the settings to “Friends only.” That way only people who have passed your friend request standards can see anything.
4. Don’t get tagged. Facebook has a unique feature that allows people to post photos and “tag” them with another Facebook user, resulting in that photo, together with the identifying tag, to be distributed throughout the person’s network. This is great for sharing photos amongst friends and family, but also allows predators an easy means by which to distribute photos of a victim in a blackmail capacity. Counteract this by going to Account; Privacy and ensuring that “Photos and Videos I’m Tagged in” is set to “Me Only.” This way, the only person that will receive the photo or video being distributed will be your child. If it is one they would actually like shared, they can repost it on their wall so their friends to see. Otherwise they can simply intercept it.
5. Be wary of apps. Facebook allows third-party developers to create apps for users to use. Some of these, such as FarmVille are quite ubiquitous and probably harmless. Others, such as Formspring.meare quite potentially dangerous. In fact, Formspring, which allows people (including kids) to set up a mechanism by which they can be asked anonymous questions by their friends (and therefore inviting all sorts of bullying or sexual conversation among other things), has actually been denounced as facilitating the bullying that led to a teenager’s suicide earlier this year. If nothing else, virtually all apps require users to grant access to almost all of their account and friend information. As such it is prudent for parents to work with their kids to jointly decide whether or not new apps are appropriate and safe before deciding to use them.
These five steps should help your children have a safer experience using Facebook. Above all, however, we should be teaching our children to use common sense when posting to Facebook and not post anything they wouldn’t want the world to potentially know. After all, Facebook is not infallible (as a software glitch earlier this year that exposed private user information to the world demonstrated) and people have been known to hack into Facebook accounts.
For more information about teaching children about predator safety and creating a predator-resistant environment at child-serving organizations and at home, please visit my blog: To Foil a Predator.
Many people can provide you with a list of tips and pointers, some useful, some not, to keep children safe from child predators. I show parents and professionals a precise, effective, and actionable system by which they can recognize and stop child predators BEFORE they can abuse children.
Eric Hsu [http://www.ToFoilaPredator.com] Speaker – Author – Consultant
I have a passion for teaching and speaking and a self-developed expertise in protecting children from predators and molesters. My professional experience includes almost a decade in law enforcement as a police officer, prosecutor, police academy instructor and faculty member for prestigious prosecutor training institutions. Many of my years in law enforcement were spent with a focus on apprehending and prosecuting child molesters, as well as training police officers and prosecutors on how to do the same. In developing my expertise, I have expanded on my professional experience with extensive study of sex offender behavior, motivation, and methodologies, both in the field, in the academic world, and in training.
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