There's a dark side to the internet. For all the good it is doing for us during this pandemic — giving us the ability to work from home, allowing us to reconnect with friends and family, presenting opportunities to learn new things and do things differently — it's also fraught with risks that terrify parents and caregivers.
Parents are right to be concerned. We can't precisely qualify how many sexual predators are out there, online, right now. But we do know that more than half of the world's children are home from school, and have unlimited access to the internet, according to Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF.
Furthermore, the FBI has warned parents to take a close look at children's online behaviors, and set strict guidelines about online gaming and social media, because the potential for grooming by online sexual predators is undoubtedly the highest it's ever been.
Grooming for Sexual Exploitation Online: How it Begins
Online sexual exploitation comes in many forms. Just like physical sexual abuse, it usually begins with a period of grooming. Amanda Grossman-Scott of EducateEmpowerKids.org wrote about ways a predator might groom a child. They can include:
- Paying individual attention to children, making them feel special and unique
- Attempting to isolate children — online this could be in the form of private chats, instant messages and videos
- Taking advantage of children's curiosity about sexuality by telling dirty jokes, or sharing inappropriate images or pornography (desensitizing them)
- Offering to buy alcohol or cigarettes for teens and adolescents
- Acting like a sympathetic friend, offering a shoulder to cry on when parents, teachers or friends let kids down
Ultimately, a predator's goal is to abuse the young person and keep it completely secret. To that end, they'll try to make kids feel like co-conspirators in the abuse. They might say things like: "Your folks would kill us if they found out" or "You're always reaching out to me."
Sexual Exploitation is a Well-planned, Coercive Process
First Coast News reports that modern predators make casual contact with children online, gain their trust, and introduce sexual conversation that increases in egregiousness over a while. The online relationship develops further until it includes a great deal of sexual communication, which leads to the exchange of illicit images. Eventually, a predator's goal is to meet the youth in person and expand into a physical realm.
Predators will coerce children into uncomfortable acts, both online and in-person, by threatening to share the illicit images or conversations with the child's friends, family or even law enforcement.
The process is purposefully slow and takes place over months and years.
Stopping Internet Predators
Abused youths must reach out to an adult they trust to halt the abuse. This could be a parent, relative, counselor, teacher or family friend. But the embarrassment and fear of repercussions often prevent them from coming forward.
Online sexual predators may have dozens, even hundreds of victims around the world, so they're well-versed in the manipulation of kids.
Preventing Predatory Behavior Online
Parents should take an active role in their children's activities, both in the physical world and online.
During these times of social distancing, be sure to ask for your child's usernames and passwords for any social media sites, and ask to review their devices regularly. If older teens are offended by a perceived breach of privacy, be sure to sit down with them, and explain sexual grooming and online predatory behaviors.
Predators seek vulnerable children, like those who are emotionally fragile or less supervision. Their first interactions with the child are pleasant and meant to lower defenses and make the target feel important.
Many predators initiate conversations on public chat apps or in the chat section of kids' games. They'll pretend to be younger than they are.
The Role of the Platform in Online Child Safety
Whether you’re managing a video game platform, a dating app, a marketplace or a social network, there are things you can do to help thwart predators and provide assistance to victims.
- Design reporting features that are easy to use so kids who may be embarrassed to come forward to an adult, feel safe reporting
- Educate your young users so they understand what is acceptable behavior. Not just by putting it into your guidelines and letting it gather dust, but by consistently, proactively and visibility providing information
- Design a technology system that keep up with the ever evolving tactics predators use to find and exploit victims.
We can all do more to protect kids.