Clicking on an attachment in an email that I thought was from my insurance company led me to a disturbing discovery. After realizing my mistake and sending a panicked text to my husband, I decided to use my tween daughter’s computer until hubby could get home to make sure mine was not under viral attack. Logging on past her kitten screensaver, I took a peek at her history and there tucked between Pinterest searches for dance costumes and school-related websites was OKCupid.com.
My 11-year-old daughter had a profile on a dating website. My baby, having never shown interest in a boy, had a profile on a dating website. And men were responding—grown men—a lot of them. I spent the next hour combing through messages and conversations between my little girl and men with names like “TooHotTooHandle” and “Man4U.” Men who were “just looking for someone to take care of,” which apparently is dating website code for “send me naked pictures of yourself.” I felt sick, I couldn’t catch my breath, but most of all I felt sad—sad that my baby, who had always had trouble relating to kids her own age, had been so desperate for conversation that she had turned to a dating website for company.
Her conversations were not sexual; they were lonely. She spoke of her fake children, her hobbies, and was truly looking for someone to just talk. She handled her lies with a litany of excuses, refusing to send pictures because she was shy and always having a reason for not meeting in person. I could see the men quickly losing interest. They obviously were not there to discuss the latest episode of Doctor Who or how to get a crying toddler to sleep, and it seemed no one was actually “just looking for someone to take care of.”
Her account had been quiet for a couple of weeks, but I quickly messaged the men who were still asking about her, explained that she was a young girl, and apologized for her deceit. A few quickly responded a returned apology with reminders that they had never been inappropriate and one immediately deleted his account. She was at school and not having her site password I could not delete her account. I broke the news to her dad, and we devised a plan of action for punishment and reinstatement of the parental controls over her internet access.
After school, we sat down with her to talk about what we had learned. She explained that she was lonely and looking for someone to talk to. We talked about how dangerous and irresponsible her actions were. We discussed her punishment and an action plan to get her more involved with kids her own age. And although I willed myself not to, I cried, a lot. While we talked I was holding my infant daughter and the thought of having to tell her how great her big sister was instead of her actually getting to grow up with her made my throat close. At the time, there was an active Amber Alert because a teen met up with a man she met online and had disappeared. The reality of how we could have been that family set in, and I had to leave the room.
Later that night after she was tucked into bed, I accessed my daughter’s profile to delete her account. Almost immediately, there was a ping indicating a message. I opened it assuming it was another man apologizing for talking to my little girl—I was wrong. “Hey, is this you? I hope you didn’t get in trouble.” For the third time that day, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. For weeks my daughter had been talking to grown men, having fooled them all, all but one. This guy, knowing he had been talking to a child was trying to continue the conversation. He had talked to her more than anyone else. He had tried time and time again to get her phone number, address, pictures, last name, and he had done it because all along he realized he wasn’t talking to a single mom of two kids but to a little girl with questionable self-esteem.
I let him have it. I unloaded all of my emotions into a response to him that described in great detail what I would do to his reproductive organs if he ever tried to contact my daughter again. I told him what a poor disgusting excuse for a man he was that he knew he could only find admiration from a young girl; that even a child had been so unimpressed with his picture and personality that she had not given in to his repeated requests for more information. I hit “reply” and then promptly deleted the account. I was exhausted and emotional and had no interest in getting into a conversation with a pedophile.
We are now eight months removed from this incident and although she slowly earned back her electronic privileges, it is with a more limited freedom. Her computer has new parental controls and I get a weekly report of her searches. I know I can’t keep an eye on her forever, so we discuss consequences, news stories, appropriate relationships, and anything else that will hopefully flash through her mind before she gets in that car or goes on that date or hits enter on her keyboard. I don’t want her to live in fear; I just want her to live.