Are You Concerned Your Child May be the Victim of Online Sexual Predators?
Why did this happen?
Is there something I can do to protect my child?
Is there help available?
How Predators Target Children through Online Gaming Sites
Child predators can gain access to children through games played on computers, tablets, gaming consoles; handheld gaming devices, and apps on phones, basically any device with internet capability. They use this access to befriend kids of all ages, build rapport and trust they then use the relationship to either coerce, manipulate and in some circumstances even threaten children into engaging in sexually explicit conversation, photos, and videos. In some cases to meet the predator in person and/or engage other children in the abuse. These predators use a myriad of different very effective strategies to build these faux relationships.
Online gaming generated over $43 billion dollars of revenue in the U.S. last year alone. According to a Pew Research poll, 97% of teenaged boys and 83% of teenaged girls play video games online. Where in the past we would warn our children about strangers lurking around our community playgrounds and malls we now have to accept that these predators are lurking albeit virtually in our own homes sometimes even in our child’s bedroom. Access to children online, the popularity of social media, and online gaming have created an environment ripe for easy access to children. These and other platforms in culmination with an increased reliance on online communications during the COVID 19 crisis have created a perfect storm of opportunity for predators.
What is Online Child Exploitation?
Technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation, including possession, distribution, and creation of child pornography, as well as attempts by individuals to lure and travel to meet children for sexual encounters.
The most effective tool parents and educators have to combat these threats is open and ongoing communication. Please start a conversation with your children today about the immediate dangers and long-term consequences of their online behavior.
– National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Keep up with technology. Parents should become familiar with popular social networking websites. Enable privacy features. Install parental controls on your child’s computer. Check up on your children. Parents should let children know they are aware of their online presence and will be keeping an eye on them. They should periodically check a child’s chat logs, messages, e-mails, and social networking profiles for inappropriate content, friends, messages. Limit time spent online. Explain to parents that they should limit their child’s internet and cell phone access.
– The American Academy of Pediatrics
Only My Child? JAMA Pediatrics analyzed 39 studies with about 10,300 young men and women under age 18. It found that sexting has become increasingly more common in recent years. Though the majority of teenagers don‘t report sexting, 15% of teens say they send sexts and 27% receive them.
TIP: Consider limiting the use of all internet-capable electronic devices to common areas of your home where parental supervision is consistent.
Children and adolescents who have unrestricted use of the internet and cell phones are at increased risk of being exposed to sexually explicit material.
TIP: When talking with your young children about internet dangers explain: text, photos, and videos should NEVER involve no clothing or only underwear.
Common Grooming Tactics Used to Gain Children’s Trust
1. Using the game itself is a perfect opportunity for predators to initiate a conversation, then sharing gaming strategies “secrets of the game” or giving game currency to encourage continued communication or to bribe children. In some instances, this escalates to promises of alcohol, vapes, cigarettes, drugs, expensive clothing, electronics, or other gifts.
2. Predators commonly build false online profiles some as adults (hoping special attention by an adult will make the youth feel special) or as age-appropriate peers. Then they show a fixed and intense interest in the child they are focused on grooming such as interest in their artwork, sports, poetry or other interests. For many young people, this attentiveness makes them feel a false sense of safety and real connection to a stranger.
3. Predators will often create faux opportunities for emotional bonding such as sharing feelings of low self-esteem, faux feelings of depression, or self-harm. This serves the dual purpose of building rapport through common feelings or experiences as well as emotional manipulation. Perpetrators will often use the care and concern of the child as a tool to manipulate the child. For example, telling the child they will harm themselves if the child doesn’t continue contact, share elicit photos if the child tells anyone, or perhaps does not agree to meet them in person.
4. Mimicking loving or romantic relationships. Predators will utilize a young person’s lack of life experience and emotionally exploit the faux relationship to manipulate the young person and abuse them. Often these relationships begin with deliberate “loving” and empathetic behavior directed toward the child but will quickly become controlling. The adult may use threats to control the behaviors of the child encouraging the child to physically and emotionally distance themselves from family and friends. They encourage distrust of anyone other than the predator and make increasingly abusive demands.
5. Don’t assume that these tactics are only used on teens and tweens, it is not uncommon for these predators to deliberately target sites such as Minecraft or very young children on “young child” gaming sites.
6. Lastly, some predators will use a tactic commonly referred to as “sextortion” by utilizing previously obtained explicit photos or videos of the child (or simply claiming to have such material) to exploit or “blackmail” children to either send more sexual images or to even meet the perpetrator in-person sexual activity. If the child hesitates or refuses the perpetrator will then threaten to send the images out to the child’s peers on social media, family etcetera. We will talk more about this in future conversations.
Vulnerability to Exploitation: Intellectual disabilities
Some literature has begun to recognize a correlation between …learning disabilities, and sexual exploitation…the later the disability is diagnosed and an appropriate education plan put in place, the greater the likelihood of the girl experiencing failure in school…low self-esteem, making her vulnerable to exploitation… (Harway and Liss)
Studies indicate that people with developmental disabilities are four to ten times more likely to have acts of violence committed against them.
– Sorensen, David D (9 August 2002). “The Invisible Victims: an update of an article originally published in Prosecutor’s Brief: the California District Attorneys Associations Quarterly Journal
Interactions and developing “friendships” with actual strangers can quickly become a norm for kids on social media sites. Online gaming sites are no different. Predators also use social chat features on consoles such as Xbox or connect on sites such as Twitch or Discord. Perpetrators will often suggest re-locating their conversations away from more public platforms like Facebook Messenger, SnapChat, and Kik for more “private communication”. In order to talk with our children about the dangers they may encounter online, it’s important that we understand the common grooming tactics used by child predators.
What Can Parents Do to Protect Their Children?
When we think about talking with our children about online predators we focus on warning them by showing them articles or stories about pedophiles that creep out of the woodwork and drag children away and hurt them or stories about children that have disappeared. Although it’s important to be clear with children about online dangers it’s also important to think back to the grooming tactics most commonly used. These predators are most likely going to present to your children as friendly caring adults, romances, or maybe other kids with shared experiences or interests that are your child’s own age. For many adults (the older we are the more likely this is true) we tend to relegate people as people we know “in real life” versus people we know “online”. However, because most children are raised “online” from a very young age young people don’t necessarily make that delineation.
No matter how wonderful, caring and attentive parents we are, the reality is that as your child ages they will be in situations where they will have to depend on their own decision-making to improve their safety. So consider talking with your children about healthy boundaries in ALL relationships starting from early childhood on. Discuss red flags such as adults or friends of any kind encouraging isolation or keeping secrets from family. Talk about controlling behaviors and the use of threats to hurt them physically or emotionally. Share your beliefs and values about faith, love, relationships, sex, respect, and consent in an age-appropriate way. Have clear conversations about “love” never involving pressuring someone to do something such as sending explicit photos, engaging in sexual activities, or simply no longer spending time with family, other friends, or on activities they enjoy. Helping your children to develop critical thinking skills around relationships of all kinds will help to empower them throughout their entire life.
- Set rules for internet and cell phone use with your child. Discuss the consequences of breaking these rules. Continue to keep the lines of communication open with your child so that they are not afraid to talk about sexting with you.
- Consider limiting the use of all internet-capable electronic devices to common areas of your home where parental supervision is consistent.
- When talking with your young children about internet dangers explain that texts, photos, and videos should NEVER involve no clothing or only underwear.
- According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the most effective tool parents and educators have to combat these threats is open and ongoing communication.
Please start a conversation with your children today about the immediate dangers and long-term consequences of their online behavior.
Keep in mind the following tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Keep up with technology.
- Parents should become familiar with popular social networking websites.
- Enable privacy features. Instruct parents to install parental controls on their child’s computer.
- Check up on your children.
- Parents should let children know they are aware of their online presence and will be keeping an eye on them. They should periodically check a child’s chat logs, messages, e-mails, and social networking profiles for inappropriate content, friends, messages.
- Limit time spent on cell phones, video games, and online.
- Reiterate to your child that they are not being punished but that their safety is the reason for the new rules.
Red flags for parents to look for:
- Sudden change in sleep or eating habits
- Unusual mood swings, aggression, or overall difficulty regulating emotions
- For younger children use of sexually explicit language or behaviors
- Suicidal ideations or signs of depression or self-harm
- Loss of interest in previous interests such as sports or extracurricular activities
- Isolating from family or loss of interest in “hanging out with friends.”
- For older children, you may see substance abuse or other high-risk activities such as sneaking out or running away
- Unusually aggressive personality changes
What to do –
If you believe your child is being targeted:
- SCREENSHOT AND DOCUMENT THE USER NAME with the TIME STAMP
- Do NOT immediately close down accounts/apps. Only block and report only after you get the green light to move forward from law enforcement.
- CONTACT LAW ENFORCEMENT RIGHT AWAY
- DoNOT confront or communicate with the personyou believe is targeting your child going to the platform first before reporting to law enforcement alerts the predator.
The emotional impact on children experiencing this type of abuse is considerable. Some children react by trying to delete explicit messages, photos, conversations, or videos either out of shame, embarrassment, fear of getting in trouble, or in many cases in an effort to protect the perpetrator who through the use of grooming tactics may have convinced the child that they care deeply for them. Parents should try to eliminate opportunities to erase communications between their children and perpetrators or for the child to “warn” the perpetrator that parents and law enforcement is being contacted.
This type of child abuse is particularly heinous as it often uses trust and lack of life experience as a tool to facilitate rapport building. Many children feel very confused and betrayed. Some who believed they had developed a true romantic relationship or close friend will go through a grieving process or even when faced with facts will have difficulty believing that this was “all a lie”. As parents of children targeted this way we understandably often go immediately into anger/protection mode and forget to address our child’s potential emotional needs. Sometimes parents feel overwhelmed and not sure what the “right thing to do” is or where to even start to address prevention or the aftermath. Below are some great resources for parents:
Parents Lead: Parents Lead is an evidence-based prevention program that provides parents and caregivers with a wide variety of tools and resources to support them in creating a safe environment for their children.
Common Sense Media: Game Reviews – Kids Games Common Sense Media provides reviews of apps, games, movies, television, music, and more. Follow the link above to get up-to-date, in-depth reviews of online gaming programs for kids of all ages.
E-Safety Commissioner: How to Create a Safer Gaming Environment for Your Child | Unwanted contact and grooming | Unwanted contact — signs to look out for. These three articles come from the Australian E-Safety Commissioner and they give more information on creating safer gaming environments, signs of unwanted online contact, and what to do in the aftermath. They contain helpful videos, discussion points, and information that can be filtered according to the age of your child.
Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force: Resources and Training as well as tips for talking to your children, downloadable resources, and helpful advice for families and caregivers.
USA Kaspersky: Internet Safety for Kids: Top 7 Online Gaming Dangers This article details different risks associated with online gaming and how you can deal with them as a family.
Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine – SAHM: Mental Health Resources For Adolescents and Young Adults. This link contains a great deal of online mental health resources for adolescents and young adults. It includes other links to websites, articles, apps, and online peer
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: A private, non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation whose mission is to help find missing children, reduce child sexual exploitation, and prevent child victimization.
NetSmartz: NCMEC’s online safety education program. It provides age-appropriate videos and activities to help teach children to be safer online with the goal of helping children to become more aware of potential online risks and empowering them to help prevent victimization by making safer choices on and offline.
What is Sexting?
Sexting (or “sex texting“) is sending or getting sexually explicit or suggestive images, messages, or videos on a smartphone or through the Internet. Sexting includes sending: nude or nearly nude photos or selfies.
Why Do Children SEXT?
Some studies indicate that many teens, tweens, and even younger children sext because they are pressured by either peers or boyfriends/girlfriends. However, even young children can be targeted by online predators or even people we believe to be trusted by family or friends. Children’s brain development affects their judgment and can impact their ability to understand the dangers and long-term consequences of sexting. Some children describe feeling that sexting is “safe sex” with no risks and that they have a certain level of anonymity online.