Parents today have the daunting task of simultaneously fostering their kids' independence while needing to keep them safe from the legion of unseen dangers that lurks online. To deal with this responsibility, some parents opt to closely monitor their kids' virtual lives.
One Toronto father has taken a decidedly hands-on approach to his young girls' online interactions, and it resulted in him assisting in the arrest and conviction of an Ohio child pornographer. Cliff Ford says he and his then-wife decided to monitor what their 13 and 11-year-old daughters did online after one accidentally stumbled upon a porn link when she was eight or nine.
"The first thing we did was we got a software package that filters out the adult content and blocks being able to go to anything that is deemed too mature," Cliff told VICE. "And then as my girls started to get more involved online with social media and so forth, we put in rules."
Those rules include Cliff having access to his daughters' account names and passwords, and having their email accounts mirrored to his cell phone so he can screen their emails. But he insists he's not trying to oversee every aspect of his children's lives.
"I never read an email message from a friend of theirs that we know. I only scan message headers to understand who is sending it and what the subject line is. They are allowed their private conversations within the confines of actual friends they know."
While some may be concerned the behaviour is a bit overbearing, Cliff's supervision yielded an unexpected result earlier this year. In January, he saw an email from a stranger in one of his daughter's email accounts. The subject line read, "Hey Sexy." Rather than simply telling the man never to contact his daughter again, like many parents might, Cliff moved into action. He took over his daughter's account and, after realizing the man— later identified as Nicholas Bowers, a 30-year-old living near Akron, Ohio—had been "grooming" his daughter on a chatroom for some nefarious purpose, began conversing with him in an effort to learn more about him.
"I could see that it was starting to escalate to become more of a sexual nature," Cliff said of the ongoing chat between his daughter and Nicholas. "Certainly the last couple of times just before he sent [the email], as an adult, you look at it and see that it's clearly trying to get something from the child."
Cliff posed as his daughter and continued her conversation with Nicholas, subtly drawing out information about his location and intentions. Nicholas had, foolishly, used his first name on his chatroom account, and there was a newspaper advertisement with a phone number area code in the background of his profile picture. He demured when Nicholas asked him to send a photo, but used the opening.
"At one point," Cliff said, "he started to ask for pictures or videos to be sent from my daughter to him and I responded back that I wasn't comfortable doing that, 'But why don't you send me a picture?' So I was then able to Google image search, which pointed me to his Facebook page, which gave me his full name."
Nicholas also sent a video of himself masturbating to what he thought was Cliff's daughter. That was around the time when Cliff decided to shut his amateur investigation down and turn it over to the pros. He contacted Akron police with the information he'd collected on Nicholas, and then Toronto police as well. The joint investigation led quickly to arrest and unearthed evidence that Nicholas was part of a child pornography ring.
In the matter of just three days, Cliff gathered enough evidence to push police into an investigation that resulted in Nicholas Bowers pleading guilty to child pornography-related charges and being sentenced to 22 years in prison.
While it's hard to question a father who detects and then stops a predator attempting to hurt a child, Cliff's level of oversight might actually be largely unnecessary. Danah Boyd, a visiting professor at New York University and author of It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, has written extensively on privacy, the internet, and teens. In a piece for Psychology Today, Boyd writes that teens are usually sexually solicited by their peers and classmates.
In the rare cases where an adult successfully preys on a child they don't know—as might have been the case with Cliff had he not intervened—that child is usually dealing with other factors that put them at risk, from being abused to dealing with addiction or other mental health issues. For healthy, happy teens, sexual assault from strangers is not a significant risk of online life. This would suggest that better methods of detecting and treating those larger problems is a good way to cut down on the danger of strange men (and some women) on the internet.
Moreover, because the internet has in many ways replaced the public, curtailing kids' independence online can stunt their maturation. "What makes our national obsession with sexual predation destructive is that it is used to justify systematically excluding young people from public life, both online and off," writes Boyd. "Stopping children from connecting to strangers is seen as critical for their own protection, even though learning to navigate strangers is a key part of growing up."
For his part, Cliff says he plans to scale back his involvement in his girls' online lives as they age. They're just 13 and 11 right now, so they're still beginning to figure out the things Boyd wrote about. And Cliff has some suggestions for other parents as well.
"As a society, we have to adapt our typical style of parenting to still allow for kids to be kids but also to protect them. I may not have wanted to tell my parents everything growing up, but I certainly knew that I could if I needed them."
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