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Along with being a mother of three and clinical psychologist in private practice for twenty years, I’m adjunct faculty at California State University Channel Islands. This semester I’m teaching the courses Addiction Studies and Parenting. Over the summer I read an incredibly interesting book, The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett. I was so fascinated by what he had to say, I assigned the book to my class along with a reaction paper. I asked them to identify with and support one extremist position or the other, the techno-optimists or the techno-pessimists. Who would you side with?

What is the dark net and how does it relate to GKIS?

The dark net is a hidden, encrypted overlay Internet network with over 50,000 websites that can only be accessed by the Tor Hidden Services browser. It’s the online underground. To get on the dark net, anybody with Internet can download the free Tor browser. From the Tor browser, your search request gets bounced around via several computers encrypting and decrypting your request as it goes, ultimately making your search untraceable. That means anonymous users can browse and interact with websites that cannot be regulated or censored.

Interestingly, the Tor browser was originally invented in the 1970s by the United States Department of Defense (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network – ARPANET) so they could browse the net without being recognized. The same technology used for national security is the very software being utilized by users of the dark net, the criminals and those using it for social benefit.

As you may suspect, the dark net is populated largely by those who have something to hide. In his book, Jamie Bartlett interviews dark net frequenters, including trolls, pornographers, child pornographers, self harm chatters, political and social movement extremists, and those who participate in black market drug sales (referred to as the Silk Road).

The Silk Road

The Silk Road is an ecommerce site that specializes in the sale of illegal drugs. To shop on the Silk Road, one simply needs to browse for products (marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, hallucinogens, heroin, you name it) that are displayed like any ecommerce site, such as Ebay or Amazon, with thousands of products offered by hundreds of vendors. One can see a photo and description of the product, read customer reviews to assure quality, contact the vendor, place an order with your delivery address, and pay with bitcoin, which is cryptocurrency designed to keep your identity secret. Once ordered, your money is held in a secure account until the product is on its way, then it is released to the seller and you’re left to wait for your product to be delivered to your nonvirtual mailbox.

Of course, there is not full safety, privacy, and anonymity on the dark net. The clever encryption makes it very difficult to locate the server for the website…and thus the creator. But there are arrests made from dark net activity. For example, the founder of the first Silk Road website, 31 year-old Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life in federal prison in May, 2015. The federal judge was quoted to say, “What you did with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric.” Silk Road cashed in over a billion dollars in sales between 2011 and 2013. Destructive indeed. However, even in the high profile case of Silk Road 1 being taken down by the FBI; within a month, the Silk Road 2 site popped up on its place. And the illicit online drug trade was reborn.

Perhaps what is most concerning for GetKidsInternetSafe (GKIS) is the large number of child pornography images available on the dark net. GKIS prefers the term online child sexual abuse to child pornography. However, one of the big problems identified by Jamie Bartlett is that up to one-third of child pornography images are self-produced. This means that children and teens, sometimes coerced, take and share their own partially nude and nude photos. As a result, eradication of these images becomes nearly impossible.

Why in the world would a child or teen publish their own photos and interact online with strangers?

In order to understand a child’s motives, one must consider what tweens and teens are trying to accomplish socially at this developmental stage. They are trying to form their self identity independent from their family of origin. They are trying to create their “brand.” And what models do they have for branding? Nude selfies experts like Kim Kardassian. No only are they mimicking their favorite Internet celebrities, but they’re also trying to build their confidence and street cred among their peers.

Just like trolls on the Internet, teens practice thickening their skin by boldly brushing up against risk. What is too scary to do in real life is more possible in virtual life. The harmless end of the spectrum for online skin thickening is talking smack to same-age friends (e.g., cyberbullying on Twitter) and the dangerous end of the spectrum is engaging with an adult stranger on the Internet (e.g., opening oneself up to grooming by an online predator).

Scary right? Yes! The truth is, telling your tween a scary story isn’t enough to stop them from experimenting with their social power and sexuality online. They will engage in conversation with an online “creeper” as a kind of dare. The kids think they’re in control and enjoy the banter . . . until they get titillated or start to trust the guy and ultimately lose control. That’s when it gets dangerous. Because in the chess game of pedophilia, creepers are well practiced and use extremely sophisticated grooming methods to manipulate children. Overly confident teens with immature prefrontal brain regions (the seat of problem solving and judgment) are easy pickings for sinister adults.

I recently saw a disturbing playing out of this very dynamic when I was investigating the new video streaming social media app, Periscope. A very popular stream with lots of floating hearts revealed what looked like a 12 year-old girl playing truth or dare with a hoard of flirting anonymous strangers. She had the demeanor of a hardened flirt, but her vulnerability was dangerously evident. Talking to men who were daring her to take off her clothes soon revealed she was in way over her head. But not only did she not realize she was in peril, she was becoming more and more determined to demonstrate she could handle it. As a mother and psychologist, it was distressing in the least. And yet it is playing out everyday, all the time. Parents are the last to know.

What can parents do to keep their kids off the dark net and from self-promoting sexualized images?

I’m sorry to say there is no magic shortcut to this question. The GKIS short answer is, you have to parent.

Not only must you stage your home appropriately with a good monitoring and filtering techkit and techniques like I offer in the GKIS Connected Family Online Course, but you also must teach your kids good judgment and digital skills. One scary story won’t get the job done. Skill building is a gradual process that takes root from a strong parent-child alliance. That powerful connection can only occur with quality, fun family time and engaging, informed conversation.

Start your digital parenting with deliberate restriction of content (e.g., no social media apps in elementary school). As your child gains experience and judgment, slowly loosen up and allow more digital freedoms, with tech monitoring and frequent check-in discussions. Avoid dishonest spying that can lead to a hurtful ambush that will blow your credibility. If you’re straight with them that you will check their online content, they’ll post with better judgment and accountability from the beginning. Ongoing digital conversations not only offer bi-directional teaching opportunities between kids and parents, but it also builds a cooperative relationship and teaches family values.

Consistent with my article last year Hey Dad, Your Twelve Year-Old Daughter Has a Nude Out, Jim McDonnell the Sherriff of Los Angeles County recently penned an open letter to parents cautioning them about the perils of self-published nude selfies and human trafficking. Check out my NBCLA interview for details.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

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Dr. Tracy Bennett