Once over-hyped as lurking behind every online contact, then dismissed as statistically insignificant, child sexual predators constitute a very real concern, and they are constantly trolling for new victims.
Nothing highlights this more starkly than the news of what is thought to be the world’s largest Internet pedophile ring that operated behind the online forum called ‘boylover.net’. The bust of this pedophile ring, which may include up to 70,000 members, was announced today by Europol.
Though investigations are still underway, the news report says, “670 suspects have been identified across the world already, 184 arrests made and 230 children safeguarded. The number of victims safeguarded is the highest ever achieved from this type of investigation, and is set to rise even further in the coming weeks.”
Of those arrested, 5 are known to be US citizens. In the UK, the children exploited were between 7 and 14 years of age, and Australian Federal Police commander Grant Edwards said suspects arrested in Australia ranged in age from 19 to 84.
Called ‘Operation Rescue’, the investigation has been underway for over three years, and Europol has brought together law enforcement agents from 13 countries to track offenders on what the report calls “ a truly global scale”. Participating countries include Australia, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States.
The website, ‘boylover.net’ has now been taken down. But according to Europol’s press release it “attempted to operate as a ‘discussion–only’ forum where people could share their sexual interest in young boys without committing any specific offences, thus operating ‘below the radar’ of police attention. Having made contact on the site, some members would move to more private channels, such as email, to exchange and share illegal images and films of children being abused. Computers seized from those arrested have harvested huge quantities of child abuse images and videos.”
As sickening as the topic is to most people, it isn’t illegal to talk about abusing children, and a simple search reveals thousands of websites dedicated to ‘boy love’ and ‘girl love’ – thousands more can be found using similar key word searches. What is interesting however is that a search on Google for ‘boy love’ doesn’t bring back any purchased ad results, while the search for ‘girl love’ has several – some appear to be positive, others offering contact. It would be interesting to hear Google’s take on their ad policy for key word phrases such as these.
Why this matters to you
With sexting and cyberbullying being the internet risk topics de jour, there hasn’t been much in the way of focus on the ongoing assault youth face from online pedophiles.
Though far more kids get harmed by schoolyard bullies than get hit by cars – we still go to great lengths to teach youth how to look both ways and follow traffic safety rules. This same pragmatism must be applied to online safety issues as well; we cannot fail to address in a careful and thoughtful way the full scope of potential online issues youth may face and this includes sexual predators.
Some internet safety “experts” have all but dismissed the threat of sexual predators online as a rarity that essentially only involves troubled youth, and have advised that efforts should instead focus on areas like bullying that impact a larger number of victims. This is shockingly poor guidance. This is not an either/or scenario.
While successful sexual exploitation of a minor met through the internet is far less common than many other forms of abuse, it is not a rare outcome. The potentially horrific and life-long consequences of sexual exploitation demand that focus, education and prevention efforts remain a priority for families, schools, and others who teach youth about online safety.
Another common, though unfortunate, observation is that most of the youth who were solicited online were already experiencing trouble in other aspects of their lives. While this is true, it doesn’t present the larger more accurate picture.
Some youth who have fallen victim to online sexual predators were shockingly ‘normal’ with great grades, strong friendships, and popular. Others have been in trouble at home, at school or with the law multiple times. Some are lonely, vulnerable, questioning their own sexuality, unsupervised, or have already been victims of sexual exploitation.
All youth are more vulnerable at some points than they are at others, and predators, including child sexual predators, are constantly probing online and offline for youth who are in one of those vulnerable moments.
It is essential for parents, teachers and caregivers to candidly discuss with kids and teens how to appropriately engage with others, how to reject inappropriate contact, and how to seek help when needed whether the contact is online or offline.
As you discuss online safety with kids and teens, talk about the full breadth of potential threats, teach what youth can do to stay safer and avoid harm, and assure your children that you will give them your total support if problems arise.
This does not mean scaring children, nor does it mean banning youth from using the internet. In fact, banning youth from social networking or other online activities is likely to backfire and lead to deception. It also places youth at an extremely high level of vulnerability as youth who have been told they can’t use these online tools, can’t turn to you if things go wrong.
Actively engage with your child online, understand who they are interacting with, teach social responsibility, family safety and privacy, and be in tune to changes in their behavior that could indicated issues.
We need the ongoing discussions about cyberbullying and self-exploitation through sexting, but we cannot set aside teaching youth about online sexual exploitation, and other potential areas of risk.
To learn more, here are additional blogs on internet sexual exploitation