By HILLARY NELSON
Apr 10, 2006
He was driving a beater. That was the first thing I noticed about the man
as he slowed down and idled his car next to me. I was 13, skinny and
gawky, trying to look older with frosted pink lipstick and blue mascara.
“Excuse me, Miss,” the man said, polite as could be. “I couldn’t help
noticing – you look a lot like Cybill Shepherd. Have you ever considered
a career in modeling?”
He held out one hand and dangled a business card just out of my reach.
“I’m a modeling agent. I wonder if you might be interested in going for a
ride with me.”
He smiled, waiting.
I stood still, my heart pounding in my ears. I spent a lot of time
looking in the mirror in those days, and no matter how I tipped my chin
or combed my stringy hair or squinted my eyes behind my glasses, I never
looked like Cybill Shepherd.
The man’s fingernails were dirty – black crescents against the white card
he held. He was wearing a blue shirt, a little oily looking, with a name
I couldn’t make out embroidered above the pocket.
Two weeks earlier, a 5-year-old boy had gone missing a few blocks from
where I stood. Hundreds of people had searched for him, but he’d vanished
without a trace.
For a moment, I couldn’t speak. And then at last I said, “Go to hell.”
I’d meant the words to come out hard and tough, the words of a girl who’d
scream and scratch and kick out windows if she had to. But instead they
came out as frightened-mouse words.
The man’s face went red. He opened his door. I took off running. I hid
behind some yew bushes, watching as he moved slowly by in his crummy car,
turning his head this way and that, looking for me. At last, he went away.
I never told my parents about that man. It was too complicated. I’d been
skipping school when it happened; I’d get in trouble. But his face
haunted me. What if he kidnapped that little boy? What if he hurt someone
else? Shouldn’t I tell the police? I kept quiet.
Six or seven years later, the missing child’s skeleton was found. He’d
been buried in the basement of a house on the street where I’d lived.
They never caught his killer.
Lately, as stories about internet predators have made headlines, I’ve
been thinking about that man in the car.
In early March two men, a 22-year-old from New York and a 39-year-old
from Pennsylvania, were arrested by federal authorities for allegedly
having sexual relations with very young girls they met through
MySpace.com, a social networking site popular with teenagers.
And this week, 19-year-old Justin Berry testified before Congress about
his six years of exploitation and molestation by pedophiles he’d met on
the internet. Justin, who went public in a stunning article written by
Kurt Eichenwald for the New York Times last December, says he is one of
hundreds of children involved in online pornography. Broadcasting via
inexpensive webcams, the kids perform in exchange for sweet talk,
mail-order gifts and even large credit card payments processed through
online payment centers like PayPal.
Trying to stand out
Why are children susceptible to online predators?
The answer, I think, lies in part in a culture that glorifies
exhibitionism. Reality television pervades the airwaves in America. From
Jerry Springer to American Idol to Girls Gone Wild,people with no real
talent achieve their 15 minutes of fame simply by being willing to
humiliate themselves in ever more spectacular ways. Vapid women like
Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie achieve celebrity because they happen to
be pretty, have wealthy parents and go to the right parties.
Social networking sites, like MySpace, Xanga and Facebook, provide kids
with pseudo-celebrity, a chance to be a star – at least on their own
personal page. The idea is unfathomably popular – somewhere between 50
million and 60 million people are now registered on MySpace.
To stand out in this crowd, many teenagers reveal dangerous personal
information on their pages. They post photos of themselves dressed
provocatively. They reveal the kind of dreams and secrets that were once
consigned to locked diaries. They admit to drug and alcohol use. And
because they’re desperate for attention, they don’t restrict access to
their pages but leave them up for anyone with a modicum of internet savvy
A culture of exhibitionism steeped in over-the-top sexuality is only part
of the problem, though. The internet also provides pedophiles with a mask
- they can be whoever they say they are.
When I was approached by that man in the old car, I could see he was
dangerous and untrustworthy. Kids on the internet don’t have reliable
visual clues to tell whether a person is lying.
Finally, kids on the internet are open to exploitation because
responsible adults are not adequately monitoring what they’re doing
Children must not be allowed to have internet access in their bedrooms.
Computers with internet connections should be set up in the family room
in a place where parents can easily see what’s on the screen.
And should your kids pitch a fit at the idea of such an arrangement,
here’s a fact that should steel your resolve: Justin Berry ran his
private pornography site for more than 1,500 pedophiles for years out of
his own bedroom. He simply waited each night until his mother had gone to
bed to turn on his webcam.
(Monitor columnist Hillary Nelson lives in Canterbury. For more
information on internet safety, go to netsmartz.org.)