Trigger warning: The following blog post discusses perpetrator behavior and grooming tactics.
As a volunteer and advocate to help those without a voice, I want to help parents understand the dangers of not monitoring your child's internet usage.
Predators are those who seek out children for their own sexual gratification. More and more stories are being reported of middle school and high school students being caught up in some form of sex trafficking.
Here’s what you need to know to protect your child from predators, both online and in person.
What Makes a Child Vulnerable to Predators?
Children are most vulnerable to predators when:
They are seeking acceptance or attention.
They want to fit in.
They feel misunderstood.
They are lonely.
Keep in mind that every child feels like this from time to time. But predators will pick up on these feelings and exploit them, especially when a child lacks consistent supervision or a strong parental figure.
How Do Predators Lure Children?
Predators make it their business to find out what your child's hopes and dreams are. They want to know their hurts. They groom children by making them think they care about them and want to help them. They promise to take care of the child and may buy them things the child’s parents can’t afford.
Sometimes this grooming process will happen over a long period of time, but it can also happen very quickly. Often, it happens online. Predators may create fake profiles on social media or start conversations with your child on messaging apps or through the chat feature of online multiplayer games like Fortnite.
Most conversations will start out seeming innocent, but then deception will follow. The predator will gain the child's trust and try to establish a relationship.Sometimes this is done by pretending to be much younger. Predators can even research your child's information by going online to their profile. They may even send them gifts such as gift cards for stores like Amazon. On gaming sites, they may buy upgrades for the child to help the child win the game.
What Happens Once a Predator Gains a Child’s Trust?
Once a predator has gained your child’s trust, then the predator may:
Ask the child to meet them in person, which could result in sexual abuse, additional grooming, or in rare instances, kidnapping. (Taken-style abductions are extremely unusual and not the norm for human trafficking.)
Start "sexting" with the child, sharing explicit photos, or introducing the child to pornography. They may also convince the child to send them compromising photos.
Blackmail the child. If the predator can convince the child to divulge personal information or send explicit photos, the predator can use this information to threaten and exploit the child. They may tell the child that if they don’t follow their instructions — whether that means meeting in person or sending sexually explicit photos — they will tell the child’s family, school, or friends.
Use the child as a “spotter” or “recruiter.” Students in junior high or high school may be drawn in with the promise of money if they can "spot" or identify a vulnerable child and tell the predator about them. The predator then beings the process of luring and grooming that vulnerable child.
Introduce the child to drugs, convincing them that this will help them feel better.
Isolate the child from their family and friends, then introduce them to new “friends.” This is a way to control the child and make them more dependent on the predator.
Predators can be charming at first. By the time a child realizes he or she is in danger, it may be too late. A child can easily get in over his head and feel like there is no way out — even as the predator’s threats and demands escalate.
How Can I Tell If My Child Is Communicating With a Predator Online?
Any of the following signs could indicate the presence of a problem:
Your child has withdrawn from family or friends.
Your child has downloaded pornography.
Your child changes the screen or turns off the computer when someone enters the room.
Your child has become secretive or obsessive about online activity.
Your child is receiving phone calls or gifts from people you do not know.
Your child gets upset when they can't be online.
If you see or suspect something, err on the side of caution.
What Steps Can I Take to Protect My Child?
Remember that helping your child understand the dangers of making "new " friends online will take more than one conversation.
Educate yourself about online safety. Learn more about the tools and resources that are available.
Sit down with your child and discuss personal safety, online safety, “catfishing,” grooming, and other important topics.
Be actively involved in your child’s life. The presence of an attentive parent is sometimes all it takes to discourage a predator.
Teach your children to value their privacy and protect themselves. Don't leave them vulnerable.
Make sure your child know they can ALWAYS come to you without fear of judgment or punishment if a person or situation makes them uncomfortable.
Keep an eye on your child’s online activity and install any filters, parental controls, restrictions, or safeguards you feel are necessary.
Insist on meeting your child’s friends. Explain why it is dangerous to communicate with strangers online and — even more so — to meet with those people in person.
If you have any suspicions about new friends or activity on your child’s social media, contact law enforcement. You can also contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST and ask for advice.
About the Author: Donna Chandler is a former EMT and medical assistant who currently volunteers with both sharedhope.org and International Justice Mission (IJM). She is a mother, grandmother, and passionate advocate who has been working to raise awareness of human trafficking since 2013.