While the internet age may have opened a new world of education, entertainment, and discovery, it has also introduced another level of danger for minors. With many young Americans using the internet daily, more are being targeted by online predators.
Some of these predators look to cultivate relationships that lead to in-person meetings and sexual abuse. Others seek to keep the relationship virtual and encourage their victims to share explicit images and videos.
Knowing how to recognize signs that your child may be being groomed or abused online can help protect them and also help law enforcement agencies identify and arrest predators where possible.
How Bad Is the Problem?
With dramatic increases in home internet access and smartphone ownership (over 81% of Americans owned a smartphone as of June 2019), the potential for predators to establish relationships with young people and then groom them has never been greater.
• 20% of teenagers in the U.S. say they have received unsolicited sexual attention online. That attention usually takes the form of requests for sexual activities (most often in the form of explicit pictures or videos). Only 25% of those teenagers reported the incident to their parents.
• The gender split is around 70% girls, 30% boys.
• The majority of online predators are between the ages of 18 and 55.
• The majority of online targets are between the ages of 11 and 15.
• An astonishing 75% of children said they were willing to share personal information online in exchange for goods or services.
• 16% of teens said they would meet someone in real-life that they met online.
• 8% have met someone in real-life that they met online.
Signs Your Child May Have Been Targeted Online
While each situation is unique, there are some key signs to watch for that are hallmark signs of online grooming. Your child may be:
• Spending more time online, especially in their room.
• Being secretive about their online activity when asked.
• Unwilling to discuss internet use.
• Displaying suspicious behavior when you enter the room, such as switching off the monitor or changing screens on their laptop or phone.
• Having new items, often of high value, that you did not buy and which they are unwilling to explain.
• Exhibiting mood swings and volatile behavior.
• Using age-inappropriate sexual language.
• Exhibiting sexualized behavior, including changes in the way they dress.
The Danger Is Real
Predators tend to be skilled in psychological manipulation. When they initiate contact, it can take them very little time to identify potential targets.
Online predators may not be strangers to the child or the family. Many online predatory relationships have their roots in an existing real-life relationship. The predator may be a family friend, a relative, or someone known by the child from school or activity groups.
While the following stages may not all be used – nor may they be used in this sequence – these are some of the typical stages used by many online groomers.
Most grooming relationships start with the predator building trust and friendship. Predators are adept at spotting children who are unhappy or needy, and who may be suffering emotional neglect as a result of problems at home.
In the next stage, the predator often seeks to form stronger bonds. They talk to the child in-depth, listen, and empathize with any problems they have at school or home. They pretend they share the same interests or hobbies. This stage can also include offering gifts or money.
• Threat assessment
The predator will look to assess how safe the child is. Is the child closely monitored? Do they have a certain amount of freedom outside the home?
• Exclusive stage
The predator wants the child to think they care more about the child than anyone else, and they have a special bond. It is usually at this stage the idea of love might be introduced.
Once the predator feels that a strong bond has been formed, they look to introduce sexual elements to the relationship. Initially seeking to desensitize the child to sexual language.
The whole aim of the previous stages is to arrange real-life meetings. While these may occur in earlier stages with innocent meetings in public places, in the later stages, it is about meetings in private to initiate abuse and sexual contact.
What Can You Do?
If you suspect your child is being groomed online or if you want to protect them, what can you do?
• Don’t panic. Losing your temper and confronting your child may mean they refuse to discuss anything.
• Sit down with your child and have a calm discussion.
• Use internet filters to prevent access to adult sites. Predators often share porn links as part of the sexualization process.
• Install a good monitoring program such as Bark. Bark covers more social media platforms and apps than any other program and can identify and alert you to suspicious online activity.
• Talk to your child about inappropriate behavior and language from other adults and instill the confidence in them to talk to you if it happens.
• Teach them to report to you if anyone offers or gives them gifts, no matter who it is.
• Teach your child to tell you of any occasion they are alone with an adult. This includes teachers, family members, family friends, and activity leaders.
It may feel that being a protective parent is harder than it has ever been. A combination of ensuring your child is confident enough to speak openly to you and using any protective apps or programs can mean your child is less likely to be groomed.
If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed here and if you have any legal questions and would like to schedule a consultation, please contact us.