By Stuart H. Ditchek, MD, FAAP
The recent miraculous return of three young adults who were childhood kidnapping victims allows for a renewed awareness of the risks for children and parents in the world today. It is especially interesting that the victims who were abducted more than ten years ago are being re-acclimated to a new world of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. One news reporter commented with great enthusiasm that when the girls went missing, there was no Facebook or Twitter and thus they will have to learn about these “new media outlets”.
While the reporters intent was to point to how the world has changed for the better, the risks of social media for children makes these abductions and crimes against children much more likely due to the nature of the communications and the breadth of information. The horrific circumstances of the kidnapping, imprisonment and torture of the three teenagers is a story all too familiar to those entrusted with caring for and protecting children. It is every parent’s nightmare and every child’s fear. The predator who committed these heinous crimes is sadistic and calculating. How else could such a crime have been hidden and carried out for so long a period of time without detection? That is the point of this essay directed towards parents. The enemies of children such as this sadistic predator are good at what they do. These deviants are like hunters constantly sharpening their skills to harm children, yours and mine. As a pediatrician, others and I carry the responsibility to educate families about the risks to our children and how to best protect them. This responsibility is no different than those related to protecting children from serious infections or illnesses.
Social media in 2013 has evolved and continues to do so into a very open and sophisticated mode of communication and sharing of information. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the three most popular currently, but others are growing as well. Today, it is very common for parents and children to be active in social media – reaching out and sharing different aspects of their lives. Family pictures, birthdays, sporting events, school graduations and so forth. Everything is sharable and easy to do so. As a pediatrician, I feel the responsibility to learn about these modes of social media as I recognize that the vast majority of my patients are utilizing this media. I am regularly surprised and appalled at what information is shared on these social media sites by children and often by their parents.
Why should all this sharing of information be of interest to a parent? Who is looking at that information and for what purpose? Sure, grandma and grandpa love knowing that Sally is at the mall on Friday seeing a movie. Or maybe Sally just returned from the beach and she is home alone a little bored waiting to watch her favorite television show, Wizards of Waverly Place. Or maybe Sally likes to share her love for a specific rapper or what brand of clothing she likes to find on sale. It may come as a complete surprise to a parent that it’s not only grandma and grandpa learning about Sally’s preferences and whereabouts. Predators, criminals and perverts spend an incredible amount of time looking for Sally and others.
Many individuals who participate in social media take great pride in how many “friends” or “followers” they have on certain sites such as Facebook or Twitter. In the vast majority of cases, participants don’t vet out who all of those friends are. Or sometimes, a “friend” who appears to be a cool looking 16 year old is actually middle aged sexual predator “e-masquerading” as somebody else. Once this predator “e-acquaints” themselves to your child or you, they start profiling the victim. They can follow them virtually or physically in the mall or outside the gym. Please be completely honest with yourself as a parent. Are you familiar with all of your children’s social media friends or activities? Do you regularly monitor your children’s social media activities? Do you worry that your child could become a victim of violent crime or abduction as a result of opening up their entire life, likes and dislikes to strangers?
As a pediatrician, I have developed a reputation for opening up certain uncomfortable conversations for public scrutiny and consideration with parents. What amazes me in this area of concern is that the same parent who would scold their child for talking to strangers on the street, have no problem with the social media activities and communications. Is it naivety on the parent’s part? Is it benign neglect by parents whereby they simply choose to ignore the problem? Is it part of the new generation of parents who don’t want to limit their children’s opportunities or creativity?
I cannot claim to know all of the answers to these uncomfortable questions. I do know that the number and type of predators has grown exponentially throughout the world as a result of the ease of gaining access and information about vulnerable children and teens. The Internet has also allowed anonymity in gaining access to children as well as open access to pornography depicting children and teens. In the past weeks the media has celebrated a teen porn tape that was leaked starring an obscure reality television star named Farah Abraham of “Teen Mom”. The news media reported for days how this disgusting display of pornography had even more on-line views than the famous Kim Kardashian’s pornographic tape, which skyrocketed her and her rapper boyfriend into illicit stardom.
Is this the social media world that you want your child’s trip to the mall identified with? Do you as a parent want the likes of Ariel Castro, the deviant allegedly responsible for the kidnapping of those three young girls to be tracking your child’s every location, like and dislike? Years ago, when I was growing up, we were taught that predators enticed children with candy or the promise of a fun activity. Today, because of sharing of interests and likes on social media, the predator knows what type of candy their target victim enjoys, what television show or movie they like, what music and performers they like and much much more.
Now here comes the hard medicine to swallow. Parents must be true role models and stop selfishly posting personal family information on social media thus putting themselves and their children at-risk. Parents must monitor their children’s social media pages daily to prevent disasters from happening. While other risks in this very dangerous world cannot always be mitigated, this one can and must.
Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provides criminals, perverts and predators unprecedented access to your family and has created the most dangerous world that our children have ever been raised in. Social media is not designed to protect your children. It is intended to create interest in individuals sharing every aspect of their lives so that it can eventually be monetized. That means that these sites exist for the sole intention of some day making money off of your participation. The creators of these sites are not concerned with the safety of your children and family. Crime statistics supports the observation that violent and predatory crime against children is at an all time high, a very strange evolution for a society so proud of it’s technological and artistic achievements. This violence against children is likely very closely linked to the transparency of their lives and yours on-line in the social media world. Predators study the habits, likes and dislikes of their victims. They can then come up with tactics to either stalk or meet up with their intended victims. Posting pictures, places you plan on being, times that you will be there and other details of life is giving these predators the easiest access to your family.
If any parent is not troubled by these facts, then they lack the maturity they are trying to instill in their own children. If you doubt the perseverance and ingenuity of the criminal mind when it comes to harming your family, then you are not following some of the terrible outcomes of these crimes. So heed my advice as a pediatrician and fix the problem today. Don’t let the recent media frenzy over the recovery of the three abducted teens after ten years of captivity go unnoticed in your family. The cold and calculating deviant who stole their childhood and adolescence honed his skills very well as evident by the way he was able to hide in the middle of a bustling neighborhood for so many years without detection.
News reports confirm that Mr. Castro indeed opened a very active Facebook account in February of this year. He shared photos, likes, updates and in a most insightful statement wrote that “he had an eye for quality”. Apparently this sick predator was preparing to use social media with exactly that goal in mind, hunting and looking for his next victim. In reality, when we allow our lives and the lives of our children to be an open book on social media, then they have been abducted already. Once the criminal knows your family, it’s only a matter of opportunity and timing before they act out.
Stuart H. Ditchek, MD, FAAP
Faculty, NYU School of Medicine
Co-Founder, Kids of Courage
Board Certified Pediatrician
Co-Author, Healthy Child Whole Child ( Harper Collins 2001,2009)