A truly scary piece of click-bait haunts facebook. It aims to teach us a lesson, but what it teaches is inaccurate, and distorts our view of the world. Deconstructing this frightful thing teaches parents about what they really need to fear.
There are different presentations of this story, but the text is always similar. A mother accepts a facebook friend request from a strange man. Shortly after, she sends her little daughter to school and posts a picture of her on facebook. This stranger shares the picture with pedophiles, finds a buyer for her, and uses the coordinates attached to the picture to kidnap her and sell her into sexual slavery. It ends with a warning about why we must never “friend” strangers on facebook, and why we shouldn’t post pictures of our children on social media.
I have never seen this click-bait linked to a primary source, and there are several places where the story becomes very implausible. It’s tempting to call this an urban legend, but it’s more of a meta-legend- an urban legend made of several myths, and every time it is spread around all of its pieces become more entrenched in the American consciousness. And a false reality, like this, is much more harmful than ignorance.
Here are the myths that make this click-bait scary-
The Scary Stranger
in the 1980’s, the idea of child sexual abuse, child murder and children being abducted by strangers were forever melded, and entrenched in the public’s mind. Child sexual abuse is common- it befalls about 20% of American children. Kidnappings aren’t terribly common, and kidnappings by strangers are very rare. More children die as a direct result of child abuse each year than from childhood cancer, but the majority of those children are killed by a parent or guardian.
The Scary Internet
We hear many stories about child sexual abuse these days, and many of them mention the internet. However, most of the time the abuser and victim know each other face-to-face. They use internet and cell phone communications to speed up the “grooming” process that abusers use to prepare their chosen victims for actual abuse. But the Adverse Childhood Experience study of middle-aged people in the ‘90’s, who grew up long before the internet, revealed that almost a quarter of them had been sexually abused. The take-home message here is predators use whatever tools are at their disposal to prepare a child for abuse, but the internet certainly isn’t necessary.
I’ll Know a Sex Offender When I See One
This story implies our friends and family are automatically safe- one stranger was this mother’s undoing. Most children are sexually abused by someone they and their parents know. About half of all child sexual abuse happens within a child’s family, and half happens outside their family, but still within the family’s circle of trust. In other words, the people this myth are admonished to “friend” on facebook. People can know their parent, child, partner, sibling or friend very well and still be stunned to learn this person has sexually abused a child. Most of us will go to our graves without asking someone if they experience a strong or persistent sexual attraction to children, or if they have sexually abused one. Asking this question is unlikely to help you protect a child- taking a class about child sexual abuse is your best bet.
Child sexual trafficking is something we read more about these days, although it isn’t new. By definition, it is when one person accepts money, goods or services in exchange for sexual access to a child. Most often when the media talks about it, they are referring to children forced into prostitution. It can also mean children being used to produce pornography that is traded or sold, or an adult prostituting their own child, usually on a small scale.
Just as sexual predators rarely gain access to their victims by abducting them, traffickers rarely do, either. A child is considered at high risk for sexual trafficking if they have experienced two of these three things 1) prior sexual abuse 2) being in foster care and 3) running away from home multiple time. Nationally, 300,000 children fall into this category- a true disgrace. However, if your child hasn’t been through two of these three things, their being sexually trafficked is very unlikely. Traffickers employ their own “grooming” process, that is often a combination of the tactics a sex offender uses and the tactics an abusive partner uses. Kidnapping is rarely the point of entry into this life, because a trafficker needs a huge amount of psychological control over the people they use. And in the United States, very young children are usually trafficked by their family or caretakers.
When I see this click-bait on friends’ newsfeeds, they defend it with “you can’t be too careful”. Focusing on protecting your children from something unlikely is respectable. Focusing on protecting your children from something unlikely, while ignoring things that are likely, is dangerous. It’s not pleasant to believe the world is full of strangers who want to sexually abuse your kids, but it’s much more pleasant than believing the world is full of family and friends who want to sexually abuse your kids.
When we understand the truth, as ugly as it is, we can change it. We can eliminate the Statutes of Limitations on child sexual abuse, that make the laws against it virtually unenforceable. We can educate adults about child sexual abuse, thereby empowering them to prevent it. And we can implement programs to prevent most ACEs, and thereby reduce the need for foster care. But only if we see the issue as a significant one, not a modern-day ghost story.
When we understand the truth, as ugly as it is, we can change it.
Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.