A Toronto father has become a hero to many Canadian parents after ferreting out a 30-year-old Ohio man who had been sexually harassing his 12-year-old daughter online.
Cliff Ford managed this by impersonating his daughter online, which enabled him to gain information about the individual, Nicholas Bowers.
While Ford’s actions led to Bowers’ arrest, cyberbullying experts are divided over whether that's necessarily the right course of action.
But Signy Arnason, the director of Cybertip.ca and an executive at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection in Winnipeg, advises parents against doing their own investigating, saying that police are better equipped to do it.
"[Parents] may be tampering with information that's going to be essential to an investigation, so the best thing to do is to hand this over to people who, in the child exploitation units, are very skilled and have years and years of experience dealing with these types of situations," she says.
Cliff Ford was regularly monitoring his 12-year-old daughter's email when one day in January, a message arrived with "Hey, sexy" as the subject line. He found out from his daughter that for two weeks, she had been in contact with Bowers via an online chat room.
While impersonating his daughter for a few days, Ford persuaded Bowers to provide his name, address and other information. Bowers even sent a video of himself masturbating.
Last week, Bowers was sentenced to 22 years in prison after pleading guilty to a number of child pornography-related charges.
Belsey — who in addition to running Cyberbullying.org is a teacher at Springbank Middle School in Cochrane, Alta. and the father of two teenagers — notes that as a parent, your instinct is to lash out at a predator.
He says he’s impressed by the fact that Ford was able to remain calm and was wise enough to elicit Bower's information and then go to the police. Parents usually get so upset and intimidated in these situations, they are almost paralyzed, Belsey notes.
He says that while it's not difficult to get information about the location or even the device used to send a harassing message, even for police, identifying the sender can be tricky.
But Belsey strongly cautions parents against retaliating directly or engaging in any in-person contact with the predator targeting their child.
He also praises Ford for being proactive about getting his daughter to understand the need to share her passwords and login information with him.
Belsey opposes parents' banning or blocking a child's access to the internet. He also advises against monitoring their online activity surreptitiously.
He says parents should be open with their children about monitoring, and explain they do it because it's their responsibility to protect them. He favours a family agreement about proper use of smartphones and the internet based on access as a privilege, not a right.
If sextortion happens
Even if parents do all the right things, the situation could nonetheless become serious if an online predator manages to capture compromising photos of the child and decides to try and extort them, say by threatening to send the photos to their friends.
When it happens, Sgt. Marc Franche, who heads up the RCMP's National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre, advises parents to get and save screenshots of any communications, or at least "take out your smartphone and take a picture of the screen as they're having the discussion with this predator."
Evidence gathered while the crime is happening is most important, but parents should also save emails with their headers and chat logs and copy the conversations.
Franche says a mistake some parents have made in these situations is to wipe the computer or delete the offending files, thinking they are protecting their child, or that if they get rid of the material, it's going to stop.
He says that parents shouldn’t assume that what they saw on their child's screen will be available through social media a week later, and to realize the predator may be able to remove their portion of the conversation.
With saving the conversations, Belsey notes, "It's that turn of phrase that somebody might use, and they might give away some information about themselves that would help the police."
He says to trust your instincts about the right time to go the police.
Reporting online sexual exploitation
For Franche, the "worst part" is how often cases of online sexual exploitation go unreported. "That is the biggest impediment to capturing these repeat offenders," who usually target many kids at the same time.
He says victim families often become embarrassed and ashamed, leading to a lack of reporting.
To report online sexual exploitation of a child, the RCMP recommends completing and submitting a report to Cybertip.ca, Canada's national tipline for these types of circumstances.
Cybertip's Arnason says when you see a sign of anything potentially illegal — such as luring someone under 18, sending sexual images, threats or extortion — go to Cybertip.ca or call the police.
If you suspect your child may be the victim of online sexual exploitation, she advises having an open and honest conversation with them.
You want them to be comfortable coming forward, but you should also recognize that the adult they come forward to may not always be you, but perhaps a family friend or a teacher.
"We're talking about teenagers who want their parents to know less and less about their lives and what they are doing," Arnason notes.
Include the technology and their sexual curiosity and it can all lead to precarious and difficult situations, so parents need to have good dialogue with their kids and tell them "they need to be trusting their instincts when things seem to be getting out of hand."
She adds that the dialogue needs to begin before there's a problem.
Arnason advises parents not to make the conversation too personal. If you do, "typically what happens is they are going to shut down and not want to share and disclose." Also, don't blame your child.
Talk to them about the tactics sexual predators use, including flattery, pity, persistence, affection, kindness, interest and sympathy. And emphasize that when a predator says, "Send one more photo and I'll stop," it's likely a lie.
Arnason and Belsey also advise parents to watch for warning signs that their children are being harassed online. Those signs include:
- The child seems withdrawn, sad, anxious, more defensive than normal;
- They get very moody around technology;
- Spending an increased or significantly decreased amount of time online;
- Not responding to limits placed on their behaviour (like time spent online);
- Not doing activities they normally enjoy;
- Stop wanting to go to school; and,
- Finding inappropriate or adult content on the child's computer.
"You know your kid the best and if there are changes, very obvious changes in their behaviour, you really need to be looking into that," Arnason says.
Both Belsey and Arnason say this isn't about the technology, it's about people and relationships. "When the parent and the child have a relationship of trust, the parents can calm the kids and together they can work through these things," says Belsey.