The adult and child walking in front of me were complete strangers, people I had never seen before. The man, who looked to be in his early 30s, was casually dressed. He was holding the hand of a young girl, probably about 5 years old. Perhaps the girl, Sophie, was his daughter, and they were on their way home from school, or a music lesson.
If you’re reading carefully, you may be thinking, “Hold on a minute! You wrote that you had never seen those two before, and yet you assert that her name was Sophie? That doesn’t compute, buddy. You’ve lost your credibility … bigtime.”
I did what I have done on other occasions. I called out, “Excuse me, sir,” and the man stopped and turned around. “Hi, Sophie,” I said, and the man looked at me sideways, probably wondering why an old man with white hair was striking up a conversation.
“Do I know you?” he asked, somewhat suspiciously?
“No,” I said. “We have never met, but I know your daughter’s name is Sophie. I probably shouldn’t know it, but I do — and so does everyone else who sees her backpack.”
He seemed uncertain as to how to respond to my blunt, even rude, comment, and so I continued talking.
“I reported on children’s issues for 41 years on public television and radio,” I said. “And a story I did on child predators back in the 1980s has stayed with me. I spent a day with cops searching for a suspected pedophile, and at one point they hauled in a man who was lingering outside an elementary school. He hadn’t done anything, so they couldn’t charge him, and he denied being a predator. But he did tell them — and me, the reporter — how pedophiles are successful in persuading children to go off with them.”
The father was now paying close attention.
“The biggest gift,” this (probable) predator said, “is clothing or a backpack with the child’s name printed on it. All he has to do is call the child by name to catch them off-guard. Of course, the 5-year-old won’t recognize or remember him, because they’ve never met, but because the man knows her name, she might assume that she must have met him. Her parents have probably taught her not to talk to strangers, but this man knows her name, and so she lets down her guard.”
I have not been able to erase from my memory his final words: “Game over.”
Personalized backpacks like the one Sophie was wearing are big business. A Google search turns up 43,100,000 hits. That’s 43 MILLION! A search for personalized lunchboxes — another gift to predators — produces 10,000,000 hits. Disney and lots of other companies will gladly sell you all sorts of stuff with your child’s name emblazoned on it.
(Ironically, searching for the combination of “personalized backpacks” and “predator” produces references to the movie “Predator.” And there’s even a pedophile brand of backpack!
Perhaps I should be embarrassed to break into people’s conversations, but I am not, not anymore. It seems that old age reduces inhibitions, and so when I see parents walking with young children wearing their personalized backpacks or carrying personalized lunchboxes, I speak up. So far, anyway, nobody has punched me out or cursed me, and quite a few parents have expressed their gratitude.
That interview with that (probable) predator took place in the 1980s, long before Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Today those apps are a gift to those who are attracted to children. And again, it’s the adults who are creating the problem, because millions of parents post photos with the names of their children on their Facebook page, and those pages are often open to anyone surfing the web. I know parents who do this almost daily, and it seems to me that this amounts to an invitation to men with evil intentions. All those photos allow strangers to display deep familiarity with children they decide to target. There’s no better example of TMI — too much information — than splashing one’s family life all over Facebook.
I am not alone in my concerns about endangering children. The website Bella Online has a clear warning, but, unfortunately, most advice — even good advice, like this and this — does not seem to include warnings against personalized clothing or information sharing on Facebook.
Because the data reveals that only about 10 percent of child abuse is committed by strangers, all children must be taught about the sanctity of their bodies; all children must be taught to be wary of overly friendly family members who want them to keep secrets or relatives who want to cuddle and touch them inappropriately. Nevertheless, 10 percent of the millions of children who will be sexually abused before the age of 18 is a big number.
So why not cut back on posting on Facebook or Instagram about everything your children and grandchildren do? Gift-giving season is approaching, so please consider NOT giving your grandchildren or children personalized clothing, backpacks, and lunchboxes.
Let’s all stay safe — and help keep our children and grandchildren safe.
John Merrow, now 81, received two George Foster Peabody Awards and the George Polk Award over the course of his reporting career with public television and radio. He lives in Edgartown.