By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in mass school closings, children restricted to indoor activities and limitations on what they can safely do in their normal daily routine. According to UNICEF, for example, over 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures around the world.
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As a result, children and young people are spending substantially more time online to attend virtual classes, socialize with friends on social media, and surf the internet. With so many beneficial features and interesting choices, the internet can also pose a significant danger to children and young people.
Online Predators Are a Constant Threat, Especially when Children Use the Internet without Adult Supervision
One of the most concerning dangers to children and young people who are spending more time on the internet is sexual exploitation and grooming. This danger can be exacerbated by parents who may not be able to be with their children when they are on the internet.
Each day, an estimated 500,000 online predators troll the internet for potential victims. According to the FBI, over 50 percent of childhood victims of online sexual exploitation are between the ages of 12 and 15. It is estimated that 89 percent of cases where sexual advances are made toward children occur in internet chatrooms and through instant messaging.
Sexual predators seek underage victims by establishing a rapport with them online to gain their trust. Sexual predators and human traffickers often seek youngsters who are willing to share information online, have little parental supervision, and have disciplinary problems. Criminals seek children with disciplinary problems because they are less likely to report inappropriate advances to their parents or guardians.
Predators typically exploit children who make the mistake of sending compromising photographs of themselves. The predator will then tell his victims that if they don’t follow his instructions, he will publish the compromising photos online for their family and friends to see. Sadly, this exploitation can result in children being taken advantage of and compelled to meet the predator in person.
Online Predators Often Target Victims with Behavior Problems
Another online tactic commonly used by sexual predators is to target victims who have behavior problems at home or in school. Predators will try to trick the child into believing that they have the child’s best interests in mind. This tactic is often part of an elaborate grooming scheme to get the child to run away from home and meet the predator with the false promise of a better life. Within 48 hours of running away, one out of three children is forced into prostitution.
Sexual predators may also appear on social media sites that are popular with young people and pretend to be their age. In these cases, predators will use fake profiles and fake profile pictures to gain the trust of their young victims. They will research the victim’s profile to identify areas of common interest to exploit.
Predators may also use gifts and compliments to entice their victims. Engaging with unknown persons online is especially dangerous because 40 percent of children who use social media remove the privacy settings so as to find more friends or followers.
Parents Need to Keep a Strict Watch on Their Children’s Online Activity
It is critical that parents take proactive steps to protect children from internet sexual predators. A good first step is to control the settings on the devices that the children visit on the internet with a password that they do not know. That gives parents control over what websites their children can access. Giving children access to their own social media account is a parental decision after considerable thought about which social media platforms are acceptable.
One parental option is to set up access to social media sites on their own phone so they can monitor all activity on the account, including instant messaging. Another way to protect children is to give them access to the internet only when an adult family member is present. This is especially applicable for young children.
Also, it is best not to let them have their iPad or phone when they go to bed. That will remove any temptation for them to access the internet on their own.
The most important step to protect children from sexual predators on the internet is to inform them about the inherent risks that exist online. Children should be aware of the specific dangers of talking online to someone whose identity cannot be confirmed. Clear guidelines should be established as to what children are permitted to do online and whom they are permitted to speak with.
Sexual predators present a major danger to children on the internet. When a child is approached online with sexually explicit material the police should be informed immediately.
About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Military University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States, Central America, and Europe on the topics of human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, police responses to domestic terrorism, and various topics in policing. Most recently, he presented at the 2019 International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering.