Robert Farley has good and bad news for moms and dads regarding young people’s use of technology.
The good news is that more and more parents, by increasing their computer know-how, are deterring would-be unsavory characters from making contact with their children.
Yet Farley added that many sexual predators — as well as their targets — have already advanced to other modes of communication, thus putting youngsters right back in harm’s way.
“The next step beyond the computers is cell phones. Parents are starting to do the right things — you take the computer and put it out in the open where everyone can see it, and you get the child-safety software. Then the same parents will take their kids to a cell phone store and say, ‘What kind do you want?’ Kids are buying cell phones with video cameras and still cameras that also have Internet access — and the parents don’t realize that,” said Farley, an Internet safety expert from Chicago.
Farley, 56, spent nearly 30 years investigating child-abuse cases for the Chicago police force. He also has posed as an undercover pedophile on a federal task force and lent his expertise to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol). He appeared locally in early October, giving three diocesan-sponsored lectures in Monroe County and two each in the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier. The seven seminars covered such topics as knowledge of the Internet; tactics of molesters/predators; various forms of child pornography; and interviewing techniques for identifying online predators and victims.
Farley said that in recent years, predators and children would be most likely to communicate right after school, when youths could access their home computers while both parents were still at work.
“The mind-set is that the door is locked and no strangers can get in — but 4:30 to 5 is when my people (on the police force) would be working the hardest,” he said.
Now, however, Internet communication via cell phone enables predators to maintain contact at all times of the day. Farley said this often begins when young people unwittingly post their cell-phone numbers in online chat rooms. The most vulnerable targets are youths who are needy and insecure.
“(Predators) will start inundating kids with how wonderful they are, swarming the kids with love, attention and affection. They push all the right buttons. When we would interview the kids they’d tell us, ‘I’m not a victim, I love him,'” Farley said.
He added that such children are strong candidates for being sexually abused — sometimes by more than one person — and that their lives could even be at risk. In addition, he said that children often post risque pictures and videos of themselves on such sites as MySpace, FaceBook and YouTube. These, in turn, are copied by predators and sold on pedophile Web sites.
“These kids don’t even realize they’re victims,” he said.
Farley warned that such exploitation is getting even more extreme, noting, for example, that Internet sex sites featuring babies now exist. He observed that with the advent of digital cameras, predators no longer have to worry about having their pictures discovered by film processors.
Such levels of perversity are not new to Farley. In the late 1970s he was part of a police team that removed the bodies of numerous teen and young-adult males from a crawl space under the home of noted serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
“I saw the evidence of his handiwork. God forbid if you had a John Wayne Gacy on the Internet,” Farley remarked.
Keeping pace with Internet predators is a frustrating experience, according to Farley: “These people are always on the cutting edge. You’ll never get even.” Even so, he emphasized the need for adults to do their best in monitoring these trends. He advised parents to learn more about MySpace, FaceBook, and the code language of text-messaging from the children themselves.
“If you don’t know how to do this, ask a young person how to do it. If you don’t understand text-messaging, how the heck are you going to protect them if you can’t decipher the language?” he said, adding that children are eager to assume the role reversal of being teachers rather than students.
Farley emphasized he’s not against technological advances as a whole, saying, for instance, that cell phones are excellent for when emergencies arise.
“I guess there’s good and bad with everything. It’s just monitoring it, making sure people that are bad don’t get the upper hand,” he said.