Parents who believe their children use social media platforms simply to stay in contact with their friends may be in for a shock. While studies show that children aged 8 through 18 spend over three hours or more each day watching videos and two hours playing online games, those minors are not the only ones inhabiting that digital space.
An estimated 500,000 child predators are online daily using the same platforms for hunting their latest victims. Specifically, about 20% of children who visit online platforms report being targeted by predators. Moreover, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation receives over 6,000 complaints about children targeted on social media and online video games.
Although state and local law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma continue to monitor, investigate, and prosecute individuals who use the internet to prey upon children, parents can protect their loved ones from becoming targets. What follows are some of the tactics used by online predators and how parents can work to keep their children safe.
How do predators use online gaming and social media?
The goal of those targeting children through online platforms is to use direct messages, comments, or chats in games or in response to social media posts to begin an interaction with the child. Predators usually lie about their identity and age and typically present themselves as slightly older than the intended target.
Online exchanges between a child and a predator begin with the predator working to gain the child’s trust; they do this by engaging in conversations about a particular game or other topics the child has demonstrated an interest in through the gaming or social media platform. The ultimate goal of an online predator is to win the trust and eventually exert control over a targeted victim to slowly steer the conversation toward sexual topics, which may ultimately lead to sharing sexually explicit photos and videos.
What can parents do to keep children safe?
As a parent, you probably already know that attempting to ban on your child’s access to all social media, online gaming –and similar uses of their phones, computers, and tablets – is simply not a practical or realistic solution to protect them from predators. Instead, here are a few sensible suggestions from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to reduce your child’s risk:
· Establish a dialogue with your children about internet use and explain what can and cannot be shared online with others.
· Periodically check your child’s various online profiles to ensure they do not contain personal information and that whatever information is posted in their profiles is protected by using privacy settings that limit who may access the data.
· Explain to your children the importance of only chatting, texting, or otherwise interacting online with people they know in real life, such as friends and relatives. Ask them to let you know when someone they do not recognize attempts to contact them.
· Establish a rule that your children cannot arrange in-person meetings through online platforms even if they think they know the person from school or another place outside of the internet. Children should know that identities can be faked.
· Encourage your children to be open and honest with you about anything that happens online that worries or troubles them, including online communications from anyone who asks or tells them not to share information with their parents.
Anything occurring online that your child reports to you or that you observe on your own, which could arguably be related to an individual targeting your child, should be reported to local law enforcement or the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation immediately.
Keeping the internet safe for your children
The sad reality is that online predators will always exist, so parents must be vigilant and proactive. Talking to your children about their online activities and monitoring their screen time needs to be the norm as opposed to something you do on a sporadic basis. Predators are patient and take their time cultivating a relationship with a targeted child, so parents must be diligent and committed to doing whatever is necessary to keep their children safe.
There is a fine line between giving your child some form of online independence and being diligent in conducting the necessary oversite. However, fostering the communication essential to establishing an open dialogue starts with showing your child that you trust them and that they, in turn, can trust you too. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but it could be the difference between getting ahead of a dangerous situation or dealing with the horrible aftermath.