Like it or not, I am sure your kid spends a lot of time online. The internet can be a scary place, fraught with some very real dangers, and the real bad guys – sexual predators – know exactly how to deceive and manipulate you children.
You will never be able to keep your kids entirely off of the internet, no more so than you can keep them from riding their bikes out on the street. However, just as you can teach them to protect themselves “out there,” you can, and must teach them how to protect themselves online.
Online offenders can be aggressive, and what the authorities are calling “sextortion” is a growing problem. This excerpt from a report by The National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction explains what it is.
“Sextortion is a growing type of online sexual exploitation in which offenders coerce or blackmail victims into providing sexually explicit images or videos of themselves, often (with)… threats of posting the images publicly or sending the images to the victim’s friends and family. Results of the [our most recent] National Strategy survey indicate that sextortion is by far the most significantly growing threat to children.”
We’re not just talking about sites like Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. Those are the obvious “dark alleys” where predators can be hiding. But most fail to realize that gaming consoles, services, and sites, such as Xbox, Stream, Discord, Twitch, and Roblox, are also a threat because of built-in chat rooms. What’s more, predators sometimes move gaming conversations to platforms like Facebook Messenger, Kik, and Skype for greater privacy.
Anyone at any age can be a target for offenders. But kids, teens, and young adults are especially easy targets for online sexual predators because they can be easy to trick, manipulate, and threaten.
So what is a parent to do? Here are some suggestions from Focus On the Family.
Teach your kids about the risk
With all of the rampaging hormones and other changes going on, unfortunately, the adolescent brain seems to almost be wired to take risks — which can be both good and bad. On one hand, when harnessed correctly healthy risk enables teens to successfully leave home, chase their dreams, and become independent. But, on the other hand, risk can be dangerous and destructive, especially when coupled with the tendency for many adolescents to feel invincible and be impulsive. In addition, technological advances have increased the potential for the latter, especially because technology can distort reality and make a child think they are more grown-up, more powerful, more anonymous and more connected than they really are. These factors magnify the openness to risk-taking that are potentially self-destructive.
Teach your kids about addictive feelings
One danger in the world of technology is the dopamine rush that sexual images, sexual communication, and sexual encounters provide. Dopamine is an incredible and very necessary neurotransmitter in our neuro-communication system that helps us have the motivation and anticipate rewards among other things. It’s triggered by sexual images and behavior similar to drugs. This means it initiates the process of getting hooked and pursuing risk. This physiological anticipation of rewards can be overwhelming and addictive.
How to Protect Your Kids From Online Sexual Predators
Of course, it is impossible to avoid every threat from online sexual predators. But the best approach to protecting your child is prevention. Here are some things you can do to minimize the risks:
Know the following potential warning signs of a person who’s being groomed for abuse, and watch for them in your child:
- Sudden and non-typical mood shifts and irregular behaviors
- Acting “older” than their chronological age
- Spending more attention to appearance,
- Isolation and a loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Weight change or sudden and unnecessary interest in dieting
- A rapid shift in beliefs and convictions
- Sudden onset of sexual behavior
- Possess expensive items they couldn’t afford to buy themselves
Teach about online safety
It’s helpful to teach our children that it’s illegal and dangerous to send pictures without your clothes to another person. You can discuss the fact that pictures will be kept and shared by the other person even if they promise not to do so. The photos are never gone. Anyone asking them to take off their clothes is wanting to “consume” (use up) them much like food or an object and does not see them as a person.
Foster an environment of honesty and openness
Let your children know that it’s safe for them to confide in you if they have questions or concerns — or if they’ve made a mistake in this area. Fearing an explosive reaction can keep a child from being open.
Always remember as a parent, you’re in the best position to determine whether your child might be vulnerable to this kind of deception and victimization. Is your daughter troubled? Does she struggle in school? Does your son deal with social rejection or face bullying? Is he new in the neighborhood, unpopular with his classmates, or insecure? If so, the desire for a human connection could make your child an easy target for online sexual predators.
Fostering a good relationship is the key. Whether you look for ways to connect with your teen or help your kids become resilient, the bottom line is love. Children who get affirmation at home generally aren’t inclined to look for it elsewhere.
And finally, don’t hesitate to call the police if you suspect or know that your child is being targeted by an online predator.
Has your child, or any child you know been the victim of an online predator? Would you care to share your experience using the comments below?