When I recently screened the new movie "Trust," my reaction was similar to watching films about hijackings and airline crashes that depict events that, while possible, are both rare and horrendous.
"Trust," in limited release today, is the story of Annie, a 14-year-old girl who has an online (and cell phone) relationship with someone she thinks is a 15 year-old boy she met in a teen chat room. "Charlie" later tells her that he's a college student and eventually confesses that he's a 25-year-old graduate student. When they finally meet at a mall, she can see that he's in his mid to late 30s. She is obviously shocked by his age and quite uncomfortable, but he convinces her to have an ice cream with him. In the next scene they're in a car together, followed by a scene in a motel room where they wind up having sex. From the look on her face you can see that she's, at the very least, extremely conflicted and uncomfortable.
A friend who saw them at the mall together tells school authorities, and soon the FBI gets involved. Annie cooperates with the investigation but tells her parents that she and Charlie are in love despite the age difference. As the story unfolds you see her dad's anger and frustration build. He even gets on a plane to meet with people from a vigilante organization that tries to trap online predators. Later you see him posing as a teenage girl in a chat room to try to ensnare predators. This upsets the mom, who begs him to stop playing detective and be there for his daughter.
The film is directed by former "Friends" star David Schwimmer and stars Clive Owen and Catherine Keener as Annie's parents, and Liana Liberato as Annie. It's gripping and compelling. Any parent of a teenager who watches it will likely wonder: Could it happen to my child? The answer to that question is that it's possible, but it's highly unlikely.
What is far more common are cases where children are sexually abused by people they know from the real world. Even when the Internet is involved, it is often used to communicate with someone the victim already knows such as a coach, teacher, clergy member, doctor, relative, or neighbor.
Schwimmer said on CBS' "The Early Show" earlier this week that he's been involved with the Rape Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., for 14 years and is on its board. The foundation's president, along with the FBI, was acknowledged in the film's credits. In the "Early Show" interview, he gave some excellent parenting advice: "We just want people to engage more in being a more present parent."
Schwimmer mentioned Facebook during the interview but the events in the film had nothing to do with social networking. The two met in a "teen chat room" which is typical of these types of situations. Chat rooms are generally considered more dangerous than social-networking sites because they encourage real-time conversations that can be easily moved to private instant-messaging venues.
Great messages for kids and parents
I actually think the movie has some great messages for kids and parents. Kids do need to be reminded that not everyone they meet online is who they say they are and parents need to understand that it's important to stay in close touch with their kids' online use. Parents can also benefit by watching how Annie's dad evolves during the film. As a subplot, he's an advertising executive who's engaged in a campaign selling clothing using scantily clad young models. Over time, he realizes how his work is contributing to the sexually charged culture that kids are growing up in. Seeing that he's upset, the dad's business partner asks what's wrong. When he hears that it's statutory rape, the partner breathes a sigh of relief much to the annoyance of Owen's character. Statutory rape is rape and adults who use seduction techniques to groom their victims are committing serious crimes against youth who may be emotionally vulnerable and harmed as a result.
I also liked the movie's end. I won't throw in a spoiler, but if you see the movie, watch the scene that plays out during the credits. It shows that "Charlie," by all appearances, is a seemingly great guy.
My complaint about "Trust" is that it doesn't put the actual incident into context. Based on data from the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC), the scenario depicted in this movie is unlikely. That's not to say that it can't happen--there are cases similar to the one depicted in the film--but, according CACRC senior researcher, Janis Wolak, "we found that arrests of online predators with youth victims accounted for about 1% of all arrests for sex crimes against minors in 2006." But, she added, "as with all categories of sex crimes, many of these cases probably never get reported to law enforcement."
Data from sex offender studies indicate that "only 5% of offenders pretended to be teens when they met potential victims online," and, like Charlie in the movie, "offenders rarely deceive victims about their sexual interests. For more data see my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier's post about some of the research. Also check out the Fact Sheets from the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the findings of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force.
The research also found that "73% of victims who had face-to-face sexual encounters with offenders did so more than once. When deception does occur, it often involves promises of love and romance by offenders whose intentions are primarily sexual."
At the end of the day, statistics don't really matter. One child being exploited is one child too many and if "Trust" can help prevent even a single child from being emotionally or even physically harmed, then Schwimmer's efforts will have been well spent. If you, or your kids, watch the movie, use it as a discussion starter, and remember--to paraphrase the title of another recent movie--your kids are probably all right.