The internet is a different place for our children today compared to what many of us grew up with. Our kids now are often comfortable with smartphones and devices at extraordinarily early ages, using them to play games, for educational purposes, watch videos, and talk to friends and family. This early exposure to technology sets our children up for later success, giving them a fluency in technology on par with fluency in another language.
But with this advancement comes risk: the internet is not a safe place for our children. It is full of hidden dangers and surprises that we have learned to watch for, red flags that we know to avoid.
While on one hand, you want to protect your children from ever needing to know about the dangers lurking online, you can’t do so without educating them on what to watch for.
Online enticement is a particularly insidious and hard to protect against form of online exploitation. By definition, it’s when an individual interacts or communicates with someone believed to be a child through online means with the intent to commit a sexual offense or even abduction. It’s not limited to a single platform and can happen on any social media network, messaging app, gaming platform, or online forum.
What to Watch For As a Parent
There are several signs to watch for that can indicate your child has been or is currently being groomed to be receptive to exploitation.
- Video calls to show your home or neighborhood, particularly if the other party does not turn on their camera (a tactic used to try and determine where the target is located)
- Your child is receiving digital gifts such as in-game upgrades, gift cards, or memberships
- Your child has been struggling more at school or is suffering from depression, and suddenly a new best friend is always there
- Your child has a sudden increase in nightmares
- Your child suddenly increases in withdrawn behaviors
- Your child starts having angry outbursts
- Your child seems to be feeling increased anxiety or depression
- Sexual knowledge – particularly in younger (middle school or earlier) children, where TV, movies, or peers are less likely to be the source
One of the ways that predators prey on children online is taking advantage of what parents are less familiar with: gaming platforms, apps, and new social media networks being among the most common. While you don’t necessarily need to study each new app or gaming platform to become as intimately familiar with it as your child, it does help to be familiar enough to know how they work in general.
Tools and Tips for Educating Your Child About Online Enticement
When deciding the age to start educating your child about the dangers online, the time to start is as soon as they are able to access online content without your direct supervision or involvement. This can be as young as 4 or 5 years of age, particularly if the child is regularly watching YouTube videos.
Above all, the best approach for educating your child and protecting them from online enticement is to make it an ongoing conversation.
With young children, privacy settings and internet restrictions from the provider side can help you monitor their activity. From an early age, be clear that not everyone on the internet is who they claim to be, and that it is very easy to lie and pretend online. This doesn’t have to be in the form of a lecture; you can make it fun by taking time to watch debunking videos, which can also be helpful as your children get older.
If you can, join the same social media networks and apps that your children do, and log into them at least sporadically. You can see what they post, who they talk to, and potentially spot someone questionable before they do.
Teaching your kids good “netiquette” is also a helpful way to teach them what they should also expect from others online. If they would never ask for invasive content or photos, why should they let someone else do that to them?
You can affirm this by making it into a sort of “what if” series of questions and answers: “what if someone you don’t know in real life starts talking to you online?” By creating opportunities for conversation around online behavior, you can give your children the tools they need to protect themselves if a predator does attempt to reach out to them.
Be sure to remain positive, or at least receptive, if your child does bring something questionable to your attention. They will take cues from your behavior, and you want to ensure they feel safe coming to you if someone online is making them uncomfortable.
What happens if your child tries to meet someone in person?
Despite your best efforts, your child may still fall victim to a predator – some of them are highly determined and very talented liars.
If your child decides to meet someone in person they’ve only spoken to online, they may not tell you what they have planned. Empower them to still protect themselves by providing kids old enough to walk home alone or visit the park on their own with at least a basic cell phone that they can use to call you or 911.
You can also lean on the help of your local community, issuing an alert via the Guardian app if your child is missing and you think they may have tried to meet someone nearby.
Leveraging the power of social media can also help. It is important not to rely on social media assistance exclusively – due to the use of algorithms, there is a high likelihood your post will not be seen by those who can help immediately.
You do not need to wait to file a missing person’s report with the police if you are concerned your child has tried to meet a potential predator. If you’re worried, call them and let your local police department help you.
What can you do if you suspect online enticement?
In addition to ensuring your own children are protected through education, if you suspect an individual is attempting to groom them or someone else’s child, you can report them! Since 1998, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has operated the CyberTipline® to make it easier for the general public, as well as digital service providers, to report suspected child exploitation. You can learn more on the NCMEC website.
You can learn more about the FBI’s various initiatives related to crimes against children (and their efforts to fight such crimes) on the FBI’s website as well.