The internet gives kids and teens a life completely independent from their home life. Everyone online is as anonymous or as public as they’d like to be, giving many people adequate cover to create false identities or use the internet for nefarious purposes. It’s an established fact that child predators use the internet to meet and groom victims.
Grooming is a process by which the predator slowly eases a child into compliance with their desires, and the beginning of a dangerous relationship. If your child is being groomed by a predator, you need to be able to spot the signs and report the activity before things escalate out of control.
Kids always want cool new stuff, but it’s hardly in the budget. Predators know how to win points with children, specifically by putting their wallets up for grabs. These people will sometimes buy gifts for children and send them to their houses, and this is dangerous for a multitude of reasons.
Kids and teens will associate gifts with generosity, making them believe that the predator is a nice person. It also means the predator knows where your child lives, because they’re shipping packages to the house. If your child is receiving mail or packages from someone you’ve never met, always verify the source.
Kids and teens want their privacy. They’re always trying to grow up before they’re really ready. Perhaps your child has recently set a new password on their computer or a folder. Or perhaps they always quickly leave the room whenever the message tone sounds and respond only when nobody is around. This, to an extent, is a normal part of adolescence. Just make sure things don’t get too far. There is no shortage of reasons to prioritize your child’s cybersecurity.
If they are secretive to the point of raising suspicion, it might be a good idea to make sure your child hasn’t found themselves involved in something harmful on the internet.
Predators have used voice chat on popular games to groom children. A man was caught in January of 2019 using Fortnite to groom underage players.
While it’s not at all unusual for kids and teens to game together (or even harmlessly flirt with a classmate they have a crush on), it’s outright dangerous for children to have these kinds of unmonitored conversations with complete strangers who can present themselves to be whoever they choose to be on an anonymous platform. Encourage your child to turn off chat features in games unless they’re playing with a group of familiars.
Predators often groom children into taking provocative photos. Most predators won’t outright ask for lewd photos. Instead, they’ll slowly build their requests until a lewd photo feels less out of the ordinary. If it seems your child is dressed a more provocatively at home (i.e. shorter pajama shorts on girls, boys walking around with their shirts off when they ordinarily would not), this could be a result of photo requests from a predator.
If you catch your child during an act of taking a provocative selfie, or find such photos on their computer or phone, try to remain calm. Screaming and shouting will only aggravate the situation. Explain to your child that for their own safety, they have to tell you who they were sending those photos to. This might turn into an ugly “privacy” argument between you and your child – again, remain calm, but push on. The stakes are too high, and it’s better to argue now than be sorry later.
It’s nearly impossible to know every single one of your child’s friends. It’s almost impossible to remember the names of everyone in their martial arts class or at their piano lessons. You don’t have to interview every single person your child associates with, but you do have to make sure you know enough information about the people they’re talking to online. If your child has internet friends, particularly friends that don’t attend their school, you should be monitoring their interactions with these individuals until you can verify their identities.
Predators will really put in the effort to make a kid or teen feel loved, cherished, and important. In a time where children are often dealing with negative self esteem (https://www.maskmatters.org/virtual-pressure/), this tactic works remarkably well. Predators will spend hours lavishing kids and teens with attention and complements, sending them into a positive feedback loop that turns into an all-day, all-night chatting session. These lengthy chats make kids and teens feel like they know the predator, removing some of the inhibitions the child may have.
As much as parents don’t want to think about it, teens often look at pornography.
This is a conversation parents will need to have with their teens, but it doesn’t mean the teen is being groomed. Often, it’s normal curiosity. It should be alarming, however, when a child is found with adult oriented materials. Young children don’t ordinarily have a developed preference and wouldn’t even know to look for these materials online. If you find your child with adult oriented materials, it is imperative that you find out who sent them or who told them where to look.
Developing an open door policy with your child will keep him or her safe on the internet. Make sure your child understands that predators are out there, and that they won’t be in trouble if they report to you that they believe they may have interacted with one. If you believe your child may have been in contact with an online predator, report the activity to the police by phone or use The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s tip line (https://report.cybertip.org/).
Sienna Walker is an ex-tutor, and an advocate of lifelong learning. She is online, writing about topics that pertain to students and children. Feel free to reach out to her on @SiennaWalkerS (https://twitter.com/SiennaWalkerS) and say ‘hi’.