Online predators have only gotten bolder in their attempts to lure children into sexual conversations or real-life meetups during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children saying it received 37,800 reports of possible “online enticement” during 2020.
That’s an increase of 97.5 percent from the about 19,100 reports the Center received in 2019. The Center said that 98 percent of the reported offenders were seemingly unknown to the targeted children in the offline world.
What is online enticement? The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says online enticement is when adults use the internet in an attempt to engage children in sexual conversations or to convince them to send sexually explicit images of themselves. Other online predators try to slowly befriend children to meet them in person.
It’s a scary topic, but one that adults need to understand. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, children are spending more time online now than they have in the past as many are still attending school remotely and spending hours unsupervised during the day.
Fortunately, parents can take steps to protect their children against internet predators. It’s all about recognizing the signs of online enticement and monitoring your children’s online activity.
How do online predators typically operate?
Online predators rely on several strategies to gain the trust of children.
The first of these techniques is grooming. During this process, predators may spend months steadily getting to know their potential victims. They might start this process by contacting children as they play popular online games such as Fortnite or Minecraft. The conversations might start innocently, with the predators commenting on gameplay or recommending gaming strategies.
But over time, predators learn more about their targets. They might learn that a child is fighting with his or her parents or that their victim is being bullied at school. They might learn the child plays organized baseball or loves a certain food.
The predator and the target, then, become online friends. Eventually, the predator may uncover their victim’s emotional needs and play on these to gain the trust of the child. Children who are lonely, bored, frustrated, or angry are often especially vulnerable to these grooming attempts.
Once predators gain the trust of their victims, they will then steer conversations more often toward sexual topics and will eventually ask children to engage in sexual conversations, send explicit photos, or meet them in real life.
Phishing is another tool that online predators use to learn more about their victims and where they might live.
Predators might convince potential victims to tell them the names of their favorite sports teams. Or maybe they’ll ask them about the weather for the day, their favorite restaurants, or favored places to shop. If predators learn enough details and personal information, they can narrow down their victims’ locations to smaller areas.
They can use this information to boost their grooming efforts, crafting online conversations that include more personal information that is relevant to their victims. This can increase the trust that predators build with these victims. Predators can also use this information to pinpoint where their victims live. They can then set up real-life meetings with these victims, usually in locations away from the children’s own homes or neighborhoods.
Online predators have a single goal when they make contact with potential victims: They want to gain trust. Mirroring is one of the strategies they use to do this.
Predators will mimic, or mirror, the emotions that their victims are feeling. Maybe a victim is being bullied at school. Online predators might say that they, too, were bullied and that they understand what they are going through. Maybe a child feels lonely. Predators might say that they understand what it’s like to be lonely. The predator’s offer of friendship becomes even more enticing.
What apps do predators use to contact their victims?
Children today gravitate toward social media apps that allow them to connect easily with their friends. These social networking apps and websites, though, are also favored by predators who use them to communicate with their victims.
Here are some of the apps that predators may use to communicate with children:
Kik: An instant messaging app that allows users to chat with strangers online.
Monkey: A video chat app that allows users to chat with strangers in 15-second intervals.
Snapchat: A social media app that allows users to share photos and videos that disappear after viewers watch them.
TikTok: A popular app that allows users to create and share short videos. Because TikTok is so popular among teens and younger children, it could be an attractive option to predators.
WhatsApp: A messaging app that allows users to share photos, send texts, and set up video calls.
Whisper: Another app that allows users to post and share photos, messages, and videos. Whisper, though, allows people to share these communications anonymously.
Chat Avenue: This chat room site hosts a wide variety of themed chat rooms such as Teen Chat and Kids Chat, making it possible for predators hoping to begin online communications with children.
Online games: Online games such as Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox have only grown in popularity during the pandemic, as kids spend more time online. Because of this, predators may be turning to these platforms to reach out to potential victims.
Who do online predators target?
Online predators focus on creating trust between themselves and their victims. It’s not surprising, then, that predators most often target pre-teen children and those in their early teens.
Children at this age are often struggling with the challenges of adolescence. They might be rebelling against their parents, which could make them susceptible to online predators.
And with preteens and early teens spending more time online because of the pandemic, this can increase the opportunities for online predators to make contact with young people.
The FBI says that more than 50 percent of the victims of online sexual exploitation are between the ages of 12 to 15. And these children spend a lot of time online. The FBI says that online predators about 89 percent of the time reach their victims through instant messaging or in internet chatrooms.
The Crimes Against Children Research Center says that children of this age are naturally interested in romance, sex, and adventure. Internet predators know this and appeal to these interests, promising often-bored children that they can provide the adventure and excitement they seek.
The Center also reinforces the research from the FBI., saying almost all cases of internet sex crimes involve children from the ages of 12 and higher, with most victims falling into the 13- to 15-year-old range.
How to protect your children from online predators
Parents need to be aware of how their children are spending their time online now as increased screen time continues during the pandemic. While it’s impossible to know everything that your children are doing when online, there are certain steps parents can take to lower the risk that they’ll be lured into an inappropriate online relationship with an adult.
Talk with your children about Internet safety
The first step is to talk to your children about the dangers of online predators. Many children might not know that adults use the internet to groom teens and preteens. Others might not understand that people are not always who they claim to be while online. Parents need to explain these threats clearly to their children and teach internet safety.
Set limits on the people you allow your children to communicate with online
Tell your children that they can only chat online with people whom they know and whom they’ve met in real life. There are no guarantees that your children won’t flout this rule, of course. But it’s important to at least tell your children that you don’t want them communicating online with strangers. Explain why engaging strangers online can be dangerous.
Set limits on the amount of time your children can spend online
Restricting the amount of time your children spend online won’t completely protect them against online predators. These predators can reach out at all times of the day. But setting reasonable limits — you might say that your children can’t go online after 8 p.m. or after dinner time during the week — will lower the odds that online predators will reach them.
Disable the chat feature in settings
Parents can disable the chat feature (at least for younger children) in certain online games. Keep in mind, though, it might not be possible to some text-messaging features.
Consider restricting your child’s access to the app and social media sites
We’ve listed the most common apps that online predators have been known to use. Again, forbidding your children from using apps such as Kik, Snapchat, and Whisper doesn’t mean that they won’t use them when they think you’re not paying attention. And even if your children don’t use these apps, there’s no guarantee that online predators won’t reach out to them through other sites and chat rooms. But warning your children about the dangers of chatting with strangers through these apps might help them identify when the person on the other end of the chat might be a predator.
Put the phones away at night
If your children receive a text message or notification late in the evening and they hear it? They’re going to answer it. Don’t let this happen. Set a time each evening at which your children must turn off their smartphones. Place your children’s smartphones in a safe spot after this time, a place far away from your children’s rooms.
Install and use parental control apps
Monitoring your children’s online activity is challenging. Parental control apps can help. These apps allow parents to track what their children are doing online, block children from specific websites and apps and place limits on the number of time children can spend online. The most effective of these apps work on laptops, desktop computers, smartphones, and tablets.
You first install a monitoring app on each device you want to monitor. You’ll then log in to either your parent app or a website to configure time settings and other unique restrictions for each child’s device. You’ll also log onto these sites or apps to monitor what your children are doing online. These apps aren’t free. You’ll usually have to pay an annual subscription that is based on the number of devices you want to monitor.
Tell your children to never agree to meet online strangers in person
If online predators develop enough of a relationship with children, they might ask to meet them in person. Make sure to tell your children that they should never agree to meet in real life with people they’ve met over the Internet. Tell your children, too, to immediately tell you should someone they’ve never met ask to meet in person.
Encourage your children to tell you if people they’ve met online make sexual advances toward them:
Children need to know that they can come to you if someone makes inappropriate or sexual comments toward them online. Explain to your children that you won’t be mad at them or blame them if online predators target them. By doing this, your children will be more likely to come to you when an online relationship makes them fearful or uncomfortable.
Who to contact about online predators
Parents need to report online predators to law enforcement agencies. Here’s how.
- The FBI recommends that parents first contact their local police department if their children have been targeted by online predators.
- Next, they should contact their local FBI field office. Parents can find a list of local field offices here.
- Parents can also file a report with the Center for Missing or Exploited Children online or by phone at 1-800-843-5678.
- Provide law enforcement with as many details as you can about the unwanted sexual advances. This means that you should keep any emails and text messages that your children have exchanged with online predators. You should also provide law enforcement agencies with the names of any websites, chat services or apps that the predator used to communicate with your children.
Children…they grow so fast and it gets scary for parents sometimes. They are very smart and one needs to catch up with them at every step of the way. We can only do our very best, hoping our best is great enough to minimize their curiosity on social media apps and internet usage generally. Parenting definitely requires a lot of upgrade in a world of everyday technological advancement.