By Tracey Dowdy
Trigger Warning: Links contain sensitive information
If anything has defined 2020, it’s excess screen time for our children. They’ve been online more often and for more extended periods, becoming more familiar and comfortable with the wild west of the internet. As a result, some are beginning to push boundaries and explore what’s out there. While that’s not in itself a bad thing, there are risks, particularly regarding online predators. According to the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, there’s been a 200 percent increase in online sexual predator cases during the pandemic.
Louisiana Internet Crimes against Children Commander Corey Bourgeois said, “Parents are saying hey go do this, go play Fortnite, go play on your IPad, go play Xbox so your parents can work, and I believe that that led to a lot, a lot more solicitation of minors.”
Last year, Sloan Ryan wrote a piece for Medium (Trigger warning – the article contains graphic information), exposing the prevalence of online predation. As the frontline of defense for our children, it’s our responsibility to educate and protect them. Age-appropriate conversations and parental controls about how predators operate in the digital age can help keep your children safe online and in real life.
Predators are everywhere. Most parents know that social media and chat rooms can be a minefield, but what you may not know is that predators lurk in unexpected places like Bible apps, Fitbit chatrooms, even Fortnite, Minecraft, Clash of Clans, and Roblox chatrooms. Ensure you have all parental controls in place and encourage your children to talk to you if someone says something or if they see something that makes them uncomfortable.
Abuse can happen online as well as in person. Abuse doesn’t need to be in-person. Children can be traumatized by images, conversations, or videos. This distress can lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression or manifest physically through insomnia, gastrointestinal distress, and eating disorders. Keep online devices in common areas where you can see what’s happening, and if necessary, consider installing additional parental control software to limit access to the internet.
Talk to your kids about warning signs. Predators groom children before they take advantage of them. It begins with friendship, then moves to a more intimate relationship. Perpetrators then engage in conversations to help determine how vulnerable and isolated a child is – the more vulnerable, the more likely the relationship will become abusive. Be aware that once the child has become a victim, the abuser will use gas-lighting, threats, and crushing the victim’s self-esteem to maintain the relationship.
How do I talk about predators with my child? If your child is old enough to be online, they’re old enough to have conversations about safety. An excellent place to start is by setting up a Family Technology Contract. Once you’ve agreed to boundaries and the consequences of crossing the line, talk about what to look out for. Remind them not to share any personal information like their name, address, or their school. Talk about the risks and the importance of telling you if someone says or does something that upsets them. Assure them they won’t be in trouble if someone else has done something wrong.
If they have been victimized, stay calm. While this is an emotional and traumatic experience for both of you, your child needs to know they are safe and loved at home. Don’t blame yourself, and don’t panic. Do NOT reach out or try to confront the predator yourself – they’ll disappear and make it much harder for law enforcement to track them down. Instead, save or take screenshots of any messages and images they’ve sent – don’t delete. Block them so they can’t make further contact and immediately report them on any platform where they interacted with your child. Report the offender to local authorities and the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTipline.
If you or your child need additional support, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online. Or, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD (2-24453).
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.