We live in an era of unimaginable access to the world through technology. Depending on how large your family is, you may be painfully aware of this as you run out of electrical outlets when everyone wants to charge their devices. Technology is wonderful when used to connect with family around the world, to shop online and have items delivered to your door, to watch movies, download books, find craft projects for family fun, follow favorite celebrities, and even research diseases and their recommended treatments. But there is a very dark side to the internet as well that can be potentially dangerous.
Minors are especially at risk as they may enter into the dark side without ever knowing where the path is leading. Far too often, parents are not aware that potential predators may be soliciting their children through popular apps, even as they sit next to each other in the safety of their homes. Cyberbullying and exposing personal information are not the only concerns. When we give our children an electronic device we are giving them access to anything they desire via the world wide web. Do you know where your children are, do you monitor where they are going on their devices, and how they are using them? Who they communicate with? What games are they playing? What apps have they downloaded and what are the apps used for?
The purpose of this blog article is: to impress upon parents, grandparents, guardians, and minors themselves, the potential risks; to encourage conversations around internet safety; to describe “Red flags to watch for”; and to provide some tools that can help protect and/or monitor your child’s online activities.
Why Online Safety Matters
According to statista.com, in March of 2022, the Apple App Store offered over one million gaming apps and over 3.79 million non-gaming apps. This is absolutely mind-blowing! In fact, Statista reported that during the first quarter of 2022, the number of apps available through the Apple App Store increased by 5.2 percent over previous quarters. The most popular category in the Apple App Store was gaming (1). Predators know what is popular. They will often pose as an online “gaming friend” or a friend on social media platforms. The predators are also very savvy as they search for minors they can manipulate and sexually exploit. The predators will develop false identities, pretending to be a teenager or peer, one with similar interests, and who will be a good trustworthy friend. They will groom the minor until the victim trusts them and feels safe with them.
Some of these adults are sex traffickers who use social media to find potential victims and lure them into being forced to sell sex. Others practice “sextortion,” coercing or pressuring a young person to send sexually explicit images and videos of themselves. Others are just abusive individuals who seek young people to manipulate or exploit for their own pleasure.” (2)
In the 2021 US government annual Trafficking in Persons report (TIP), it was noted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) disclosed a 98.66 percent increase in online solicitation between January and September of 2020, compared to the same time frame in 2019. They also reported that online tips to their CyberTipline doubled to 1.6 million (3).
What Characteristics Might Make Your Child More Vulnerable to a Predator?
What child doesn’t want to be loved, fit in, or be accepted? What teen doesn’t feel their parents or teachers understand them at times? Who doesn’t want to feel lonely? What child doesn’t feel insecure in social settings? These feelings can place any minor at risk.
Every teen feels All of this from time to time. Every child is vulnerable. Predators make it their business to find out what a child’s hopes, dreams, and hurts are…so they can exploit them.” (4)
How to identify “Red flags” or common tactics used to solicit children online:
According to NCMEC here are the most common tactics used to solicit or entice children (5):
- Engaging in sexual conversation/role-playing as a grooming method, rather than a goal.
- Asking the child for sexually explicit images of themselves or mutually sharing images.
- Developing a rapport through compliments, discussing shared interests, or “liking” their online post.
- Sending or offering sexually explicit images of themselves.
- Offering an incentive such as a gift card, alcohol, drugs, lodging, transportation or food.
NCMEC also identifies risky the youth may do that will place them at risk (6):
- Lying about being older than they actually are so that they can gain access to certain platforms where they can communicate with older individuals.
- Initiating online communication and/or offering an exchange with the offender/perpetrator, such as requesting financial compensation, alcohol/drugs, gifts, etc. for sexually explicit content of themselves.
Shared Hope International’s list of tactics that predators use to include (7):
- They seem like a friend
- They develop trust
- They share and keep secrets
- They sell lies
- They flip a switch
What Can You Do?
With all the apps out there, it is going to take some research, homework, and time to engage in some challenging and difficult conversations with your children in order to protect them from online predators. Conversations are ongoing, not just a one-time discussion.
To start with I highly encourage concerned parents, grandparents, guardians, all concerned adults and teens view Shared Hope International’s Internet Safety Series (8). They also have a documentary entitled, Chosen, that is excellent. Shared Hope lists some of the warning signs to look for if you suspect your child may be communicating with an online predator. These include:
- If they withdraw from family or friends
- If someone is sending them pornography
- If they are overly obsessed with being online
- If they hide their device screens from others
- If they receive expensive gifts from a friend you don’t know
- If they become upset when they don’t have wifi access or cell service
Covenant Eyes recommends the following (9):
- Take inventory of the apps your child is using. “Be aware apps can be inserted into subfolders, a function know as “nesting”
- Application categories to be aware of: internet browsers, social media (for example SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, and Tick-tock)
- Online games
In an online blog dated October 30, 2022 Safewise listed numerous potentially dangerous apps. I would encourage you to visit this site (10).
NetSmartzKids is a great resources for teaching internet safety to kids.
What to do if you suspect your child has been contacted by an online predator:
If you suspect your child has been contacted by an online predator notify your local law enforcement. Call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (1-800-843-5678).
- https://www.statista.com/statistics/268251/number-of-apps-in-the-itunes-app-store-since-2008/ Retrieved 11/13/22