When I was a child growing up, I recall pornography was predominantly limited to Playboy, Penthouse and a few other magazines that featured nudity that my parents told me were inappropriate and insulting to women. Those who bought and viewed this material were considered dirty old men. Child pornography was something that you seldom heard of, and always happened somewhere else. It was a small segment of society who engaged in this type of behavior, and while a problem, it was not considered a significant one.
Today, this has changed. According to a recent of a recent US government study, the volume of online child pornography has increased by 1500% in the past 10 years. The Internet has become the mainstream tool that predators are using to exploit children in growing numbers. The Internet is an uncensored medium to exchange information, and those who would prey on children are using it to their full advantage.
While the United States and a handful of other countries have taken some precautionary steps to try and stem the growing tide of online child sexual exploitation and predation, countries like Brazil, India, and several Far East nations have become safe havens for predators. These countries offer few protections or safeguards that restrict or in any way prohibit the distribution of child pornography online. Bangkok, Thailand and the country of Myanmar are among two of the top countries in the child sex slave industry, and South America and parts of Europe are quickly catching up to this sickening, but lucrative industry that preys on innocence. India is a growing hub for online child pornography, yet government officials have taken few steps to halt its growth.
At any given time, there are more than 100,000 known child pornographic sites online, and investigators say the number is growing at an alarming pace. An estimated 20,000 new child porn sites are being set up each month around the globe, much faster than agencies who combat this crime with significantly limited resources can take them down. In a global culture of death where abortion on demand is available in most countries, life is no longer valued and abuse of children is a sad, but real byproduct.
Because the Internet is anonymous, and global in scope, those who exploit children by online means can (for the most part) remain themselves anonymous and cover their tracks well. Agencies who attempt to gather information to arrest and prosecute these sick individuals often run into dead ends, as the predators remain unidentifiable and unreachable in a virtual world. Policing the Internet is almost impossible, especially with the limited resources of law enforcement and a lack of cohesive laws to outlaw such behavior.
Social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo!Chat, YouTube and Orkut are being used to help expand the predator's reach. Orkut, one of the larger social networking sites, has an estimated 60-70 million users. The Brazilian government has reported that almost 90% of all the illicit sexual material coming from their nation is flowing through Orkut. In 2007, 624 cases of Internet crimes were prosecuted in Brazil, and two-thirds of those cases (420) were linked to child pornography on Orkut.
Thousands of pornographic images and video clips make their way onto the Internet daily, and many of these are of children as young as 5-7 years of age. And as you can see, it is not just the private, backroom sites that predators share through their private channels, but to social networking sites like MySpace, Orkut, and YouTube. Plus, new cell phone technology is making it easier to capture images and video and transmit this to other cell phones, as well as the Internet.
The miniaturization of wireless cameras have also led to a rise in the gathering of images and video from unsuspecting children and adults. Cameras can be hidden in stuffed animals, book spines, air conditioning vents, clock radios, and other innocent locations that can beam a video signal to a nearby collection point for recording and later distribution onto private websites, DVDs and social networking sites.
Children are also adding to this growing problem by posting nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves online. Vanessa Hudgens of the Disney High School Musical movie series had inappropriate images she had sent to her boyfriend and co-star Zak Efron nabbed and uploaded to the Internet. One of the Cheetah girls, Adrienne Bailon, has also been linked to the release of nude photographs. This has led to impressionable young girls and boys posting their own images, or sharing them with others, only to have these images make their way to the World Wide Web and into the hands of those who would distribute them or view them for their own sick, twisted ends.
According to the Dauphin County (PA) Child Predator Unit, more than 181 Internet predators have been arrested since they began operations in 2005. In 2008 along, they made more than 70 arrests, more than in any previous year. Attorney General Tom Corbett said, "Predators know that kids become more active online as the weather turns colder and the days grow shorter, and they also know that more young people are home unsupervised, either before or after school." He added, "Time and distance mean nothing to Internet predators because computer technology allows them to reach across the street, or across the country, to 'groom' young victims for sexual meetings or to flood their computers with sexually graphic photos and videos."
Parents should be aware of their children's online activities, and not allow them to have individual access to the Internet in rooms where their activity cannot be monitored. We suggest you place the computer in a centrally-located area of the home, in plain sight, so that everyone can monitor the family's Internet usage. Parents should also teach their children to be alert for strangers who pose as online friends or engage in sexually explicit language. If they are sent explicit photos or videos, solicited for sex, or asked to meet face-to-face, they should notify their parents and law enforcement should be contacted immediately.
Sexual predation is not limited to children, and teens (and pre-teens) are increasingly becoming the prey. As children in their pre-teens and teens go through emotional swings, predators have found they are more easily manipulated, especially by those who are lacking in self-esteem or having difficulties fitting in. Through social networking sites, predators will befriend children, teens and even adults in an effort to gain their trust and confidence, all the while grooming them for an anticipated face-to-face encounter or to persuade them to either send pictures or video, and in some cases pose or perform online.
As a society, we need to do more to make sure that social networking sites are truly social places, and not predatory hangouts. Turning a blind eye to the problem doesn't make it go away. Reporting deviant behavior and online material to law enforcement is an important first step, and taking the high road yourself to make sure that you and your family members are not contributing to this growing epidemic is another.
Social networking sites offer a great opportunity to meet and communicate with people from all over the world; however, it is important to remember that you really don't know these people, and anything posted online can and will be used against you if it is accessed by the wrong person. It is also important to remember that once something is placed online, it is there foreve. The Internet doesn't forget, nor does it forgive, wrong choices. And the consequences could have a lasting impact on you, and others.