Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and school closures across the nation, the amount of time children and adolescents spend online has increased significantly. From online learning to social and gaming apps, COVID-19 has created complex challenges for parents. While it is important to set boundaries such as limited screen time, it is equally important to talk to our children and teens about online predators. Predators, including human traffickers, may use this pandemic as an opportunity to target vulnerable and unsuspecting children or young adults. Ashley McAree, MSN, RN, FNE-A/P, SANE-A, Human Trafficking Liaison for GBMC’s Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) and Domestic Violence (DV) Program, would like to share the following tips and precautions to keep you and your children safe.
How do predators exploit children and young adults?
Online predators use text messaging, websites, gaming apps, or social media apps to reach young children and teens. Often, a grooming process is used to develop trust, manipulate, and deceive their victim. They will pose as children or teens online, attempt to relate to the child or young adult, and work to exploit natural sexual curiosity by testing the boundaries of a conversation and gradually introducing topics of a sexual nature.
How does the internet play a role?
According to a 2018 study, over half of minor sex trafficking survivors victimized in 2015 or later reported that their first contact with a trafficker occurred online. Social media sites and gaming apps are becoming increasingly popular for human traffickers and predators to contact and groom children. It is imperative that parents remain aware of online safety, predatory behaviors, and what they can do to prevent child sexual exploitation.
How often is a child contacted by an online predator?
In 2019, the CyberTip line for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children received 16.9 million reports related to suspected child sexual exploitation, with a large number of those reports linking to popular online applications including: Facebook (15,884,511 reports), Roblox (675 reports), Snapchat (82,030 reports), Tik Tok (596 reports), and Twitter (45,726).
What can I do as a parent?
It is important to maintain open and honest communication with your children by letting them know you are always available and having regular age-appropriate conversations about online safety and the signs of grooming/recruitment. Be sure to set shared boundaries that you and your children agree upon including monitored internet usage and parental controls. Teach your children to never talk to, share photos, or give identifying information (last name, location, school, birthdate, etc.) to someone online that they do not know in real life.
Are there steps I can take to monitor my child online?
There are certainly steps every parent can take to ensure the safety of their children online. One of these steps includes familiarizing yourself with your child’s online activities. Ask yourself the following questions:
What is my child doing online?
How are they communicating with family and friends?
What games do they play?
Do the games have chat functions?
What should I do if I suspect a predator is exploiting a child?
If a child makes a disclosure to you, it is critical that you believe them, provide reassurance, do not place blame, and remain non-judgmental. If you suspect attempted sexual exploitation, make sure to save any potential evidence (screenshots), contact law enforcement, and contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678, CyberTip at report.cybertip.org, or the Maryland Center for School Safety at 1-833-MD-B-SAFE (1-833-632-7233).