Young children and teens can become sexually victimized — especially via the Internet — when they don’t realize they are being “groomed” by canny adults, say experts on child exploitation.
To parents, “our basic message is get that [personal computer] out of the bedroom and put it in a public place and set some limits and know what your kids are doing,” said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The Internet plays a huge role in child exploitation, and adults who work with youths should do so only in ways that are above reproach, Mr. Allen said.
This means “don’t use instant messaging in the middle of the night,” he added.
The use of e-mails and instant messages as exploitation tools has been garnering attention since recent news reports of former Rep. Mark Foley’s sexually explicit electronic messages with former congressional pages, who were teenagers at the time.
The Florida Republican resigned his office, has entered an alcoholism rehabilitation program and is being investigated by law-enforcement agencies.
“Any suggestion that Mark Foley is a pedophile is false, categorically false,” Mr. Foley’s attorney, David Roth, told a televised press conference in Florida last week . “Mark Foley denies ever, ever having any sexual contact with a minor.”
However, Mr. Foley’s online conversations with several male pages, which focused on the teens’ physical activities and genitals, sound like grooming practices employed by sexual predators, sex-abuse experts said.
Typically, a relationship starts out “in a very innocent way,” with the predator acting like a friend to the victim, said Lynn Parrish, spokeswoman for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
The predator develops the friendship by giving the young person gifts, empathizing with his or her problems and building a relationship of trust, she said. But at some point, the relationship takes a sexual turn, “and because it happens gradually over time … young people miss these cues.”
“Teens don’t recognize the grooming when they see it; the kid is totally oblivious to it until it’s too late,” said Patrick Trueman, the former head of the Justice Department’s unit on child exploitation and obscenity.
Once sexual contact is made, the predator will “hold it over you,” he said. He can pressure the child for more sexual contact, saying, “‘Oh, if you don’t do this again, I’ve got these pictures of you now. Your friends are going to know all about this. We’re just alike. You’re just like me.’”
Children and teens will feel shame and confusion and refuse to talk about what happened, even though they should, Mr. Trueman said. This, in turn, can lead to “a cycle of abuse,” in which the youths become promiscuous or turn to substance abuse.
“The effects can last a lifetime unless you get help,” said Ms. Parrish, who urged victims of sexual abuse to call RAINN’s hot line, 800/656-HOPE.