By Joi Bass
For millions of children in the United States and around the world, the internet has become their safe haven. Video games, chat rooms, and social media sites have become places where children and teens can rebuild old connections and make new ones. However, now that we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, children and teens are spending more time at home, which means they are spending more time on the internet and are more accessible to online predators.
As we all know, the internet is much more anonymous than the real world. People can conceal their identities or even pretend to be someone they’re not. According to GCF Global, this poses a real danger to children and teens online. Now more than ever, online predators who are working from home due to the pandemic now have a greater opportunity to prey on children and teens knowing they are now constantly online. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has made a huge effort to educate parents and children about the importance of internet safety and how to spot potential online predators.
According to the National Center for Health Research, the common stereotype of the online predator is that of a middle-aged man with no job who lives alone and his day consists of luring young children and teens through the internet. However, many people question the accuracy of this stereotype. The National Juvenile Online Victimization Study has attempted to answer this stereotype’s accuracy and identify other characteristics of online predators. These studies have concluded that this typical stereotype is misleading and can hinder parents from protecting their children from online predators.
Let’s get into the facts:
Close to 100% are male
91% are white and non-Hispanic
91% hold a full-time job
These facts come to show that these online predators are very good at concealing their true identity and that children truly don’t know who is on the other side of the screen. What’s unfortunate is that predators are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reach young children—they know that some children and teens are experiencing social isolation, less supervision and are spending more time on their computers or cell phones.
However, Scientific American reported, the FBI issued a warning to parents in late March about this issue. Many parents are unaware of the risks of online sexual abuse. In 2018, tech companies reported finding more than 45 million instances of child sexual abuse material on their platforms. In order to address the dangers of online predators, there are key questions that need to be answered. First, how are these predators infiltrating into these online platforms? Second, how can parents address their concerns to their children? Finally, what are the signs children and teens should look for when online?
Before we address these questions, we first have to understand what characteristics they look for in their victims. While children and teenagers are both at risk, it is evident that online predators seek out children with unique characteristics. Predators often look for children who may be new online and unfamiliar with the internet. They also tend to gravitate towards children who go to the internet to seek attention and affection. In addition, predators look for those children who are lonely and rebellious.
How Online Predators Operate
As stated in Cyber Safety Cop, there is no single method in which online predators work. However, there are several methods that have been identified as to how online predators lure their victims to get them to do what they want. One method is that predators will find victims on social networks, blogs, chat rooms, instant messaging, discussion boards, and online video games. After finding these children on these various platforms they will seduce their targets through affection, attention, kindness, and even gifts. These manipulation tactics lead to the victims being “groomed.” When a child is being groomed by online predators, the child and the predator begin to slowly develop a relationship and a sense of trust.
When picking their victims online, predators are very smart. Before picking their victims, they familiarize themselves with the latest trends in things that interest kids—like music, fashion, hobbies, etc. to make it seem like the predators can relate to their victims. As stated earlier, they look for children with unique characteristics and they prey on those traits; for example, children that are emotionally vulnerable due to problems from school or at home.
Predators then take that emotional vulnerability and pretend to listen and sympathize with their targets. They act as the child’s ally to make the child feel that they can trust them above anyone else. After gaining the victim’s trust, the predator will gradually make the conversations sexual.
While these predators can be seen as skilled and manipulative, they can also be intimidating. If the victim tries to cut communication online, predators can scare the victim into continuing the relationship. Predators will often convince their victims that they will threaten to tell the child’s parents what they’ve been doing online and that they’ve engaged in inappropriate behavior online.
The final method these online predators often use to lure their victims to meet them in-person is impersonating other children. As stated before, online predators are very skilled, charming, and manipulative. They will do extensive research on things that interest the particular age group of children they prey on to make their victims believe that they are on their level. After doing their research, they create a fake online persona of a child in order to go after their target, gain their trust, and finally lure them into a dangerous situation.
How Parents Can Talk to Their Children About the Dangers of Online Predators
During the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of parents are overwhelmed. They are busy with their changing work environment and concerned about not only their health but the health of their children as well. More than ever right now is the perfect opportunity for parents to learn about the real dangers of online predators and how to keep their children safe. Right now, millions of children and teens are experiencing feelings of isolation and loneliness due to the pandemic and it is important for parents to show their children that they understand their feelings and that they are with them 100%.
Here are some ways parents can help protect their children from online predators:
Talk to your child about online predators.
Discuss risky behavior.
Spell out what a risky relationship is.
Talk about the dangers of chat rooms.
Warn your child about online flirting.
Be clear about offline safety rules too.
Consider surveillance software.
Let your child know they can always talk to you.
Many parents may ask what they can do if they believe their child has encountered an online predator. Bark reported that this is what parents should do:
Save or take screenshots of messages. DO NOT DELETE THEM.
Block the offender.
Report the offender on any platform where they engaged with your child.
Report the offender to the local authorities.
How Children Can Protect Themselves From Online Predators
The Pew Internet and American Life Project states, it is estimated that 95% of children between the ages of 12-17 are online. This makes social media and various internet platforms hunting grounds for sex traffickers. Online predators and sex traffickers go hand in hand. They reach out to children and adolescents that are in need of attention. Moreover, they often reach out to those who post their personal problems on social media and predators will use this to their advantage.
With this knowledge in hand, that is why it is important not only for parents to have a conversation with their kids but also for them to help their kids to take measures to protect themselves. Here are some strategies children and teens should take while on the internet:
Don’t talk to people you don’t know or are unfamiliar with.
Don’t post personal information on social media that you wouldn’t want strangers to see online.
Don’t believe claims by online predators that they are photographers, producers, and others who promise you fame and fortune.
Don’t accept invitations to “parties” from people you don’t know.
Look out for lines used to lure people like “You’re pretty. You could make some money.” Or “I’m here for you.”
It is true that America is currently in an unprecedented time due to the pandemic; however, studies show that there are more than 4 million victims of sex trafficking globally. This has been an issue that has been swept under the rug for far too long and it needs to be addressed immediately.
Right now, children and teens are going through a lot of changes mentally and they are using the internet as their escape from reality and predators know that. That is why we have to do everything in our power to ensure our children that we are here for them, we love them, we support them and we want them to be safe.
To report online child sexual abuse or find resources for those in need of help, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678.
Stay tuned for future articles discussing this important topic!!
Joi Bass is an editorial writer who specializes in social justice, mental health advocacy, online safety and the well-being of our youth. You can follow her on Instagram.