- Gaining an understanding of how online predators operate can help parents more effectively prepare their children for the dangers they will encounter online, including how to detect sextortion. Tweet This
- The most important thing we can do for our children is to constantly work to maintain a loving, trusting, open relationship with them. Tweet This
- If children are educated about methods that online predators use to target their victims, they will be more likely to recognize and report impending danger. Tweet This
I grew up in the 1980s in rural Ohio. My siblings and I spent most of our days outdoors, riding bikes and exploring the nearby woods. We only came home to eat and use the bathroom. Our parents did not worry about our safety, until news broke that six-year old Adam Walsh, who had been abducted from a mall, was found murdered. I’m now the parent of four children, and I worry about the very different threats my children encounter in our online world.
Today, children are rarely abducted by strangers in public places. Child sex abusers have new highly effective tools to find their victims. Technology allows the abuser to gain virtual access to a child and obtain sexually explict images that are then distributed online in a matter of seconds, a crime called sextortion, which the FBI says is on the rise. In one study of 2,731 minors between the ages of 12 and 15, 15.6% of girls and 9.3% of boys reported that they had been sexually solicited online, and 8.2% of girls and 7.4% of boys reported they had sexualized interactions with adults online. Gaining an understanding of how online predators operate can help parents more effectively prepare their children for the dangers they will encounter online, including how to detect sextortion.
Predators, disguised as youth, often find their victims in common places such as on social media, video game message boards, the comment section on YouTube videos, or on community boards. Typically, an attractive “teenage girl” initiates conversation with a teenage boy, or a “tween girl” initiates conversation with another tween girl. Predators initially meet their victims in public chat rooms before inviting them to private chat rooms to further conversation. Skilled predators are convincing in their roles, as they have studied child/teen lingo to sound the part.
In the early stages, they gather information about how often and how thoroughly the child’s devices are monitored by their parents in order to assess risk of exposure. In ways that aren’t obvious to victims, they fish for information about the parents’ schedules to determine potential logistic impediments.
Pedophiles learn and share strategies for targeting and avoiding detection in pedophile chat rooms. These master manipulators study the emotional vulnerabilities of youth and work to fill their needs to feel attractive, loved, cared for, and understood. After they have established trust with their victims, predators use sly tactics to establish a “special bond” with them, and they look for ways to create emotional distance between the victim and their family.
Once a bond and trust are formed, the predator moves forward, gently initiating sexual conversation and often introducing pornographic images. If the predators can obtain just one nude picture or video from a child, they can use that as leverage to obtain more content. The sexual solicitations begin to escalate, and the predator uses high praise and positive encouragement to further exploit the victim.
If the child begins to refuse the sexual solicitations, the predator may threaten to publicly expose the victim’s sexual content, or they may threaten to physically harm their family to gain further compliance. Another scare tactic commonly used by online sexual predators is to tell the victim that they can be prosecuted by police for distribution of child pornography, which is false. In cases of sextortion, according to the FBI, only the adult is prosecuted.
After the predator obtains sexually explicit content from the victim, they often trade with other pedophiles. Some online predators operate in sextortion rings outside of the United States. These rings are run like a business with employees on a payroll who are awarded bonuses for exploiting the most children.
We must take practical measures to educate our children and implement technological tools designed to protect them. If children are educated about methods that online predators use to target their victims, they will be more likely to recognize and report impending danger. Technology providers such as Apple and Microsoft have built tools that allow parents to monitor and set boundaries on their children’s electronic time and activity on gaming systems, tablets, phones, and laptops. Home Wifi routers, such as Gryphon, provide the ability to filter and monitor activity, store browsing history, and block inappropriate content on home electronics. Other service providers, such as Bark, can also monitor text messages, apps, and email.
Taking advantage of these tools is a key step in protecting our children. But the most important thing we can do for our children is to constantly work to maintain a loving, trusting, open relationship with them. Children should feel safe discussing difficult topics. If children fear punishment or condemnation from parents, they will be less likely to be forthcoming when they have made a poor choice. A parent’s love is the most effective first defense against the dangers of being raised in a technologically advanced world.
*To report sextortion, contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI or report it online at tips.fbi.gov.
Sarah Harding is a Marriage and Family Studies major at Brigham Young University Idaho.