June is Internet Safety Month. And, with kids spending more time online, stepping up the public conversation about digital risks couldn’t come at a better time.
The past few months have created what some experts call the perfect storm for online predators. Schools are closed, kids are on devices more, and social distancing is creating new levels of isolation and boredom.
Guards are down, and predators know it. In fact, according to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), reports to their CyberTipline spiked 106% during the first months of the pandemic. A recent CNN story, claims the dark web has seen a similar increase in activity within predator communities that has spilled over to the mainstream web since the pandemic began.
While specific data doesn’t exist (yet) to connect increased complaints directly to the ongoing health crisis, NCMEC, the FBI, and UNICEF continue to issue strong warnings to parents to step up digital safety as predators step up their efforts to connect with kids online.
What You Should Know
Predators reach out to minors through social networks, gaming platforms, or apps. They often pose as a peer, use fake photos, and create fake profiles to lure minors to chat. Predators build trust with children through devious tactics such as grooming, mirroring, and fishing, which you can read more about in our post specific to predator behavior.
Predators have been known to (although not exclusively) target socially awkward or shy kids and convince them to keep the online relationship secret. The predator may ask for a risqué or explicit photo that they may later use to bully or manipulate the child or share within predator circles on the dark web. If the child refuses to send more photos when asked, a predator may threaten to share photos they already have with the child’s family and friends. Often the predator may ask the child to meet in person. These relationships can be brief or go on. Regardless of duration, each encounter can have a harmful psychological impact on a child. Of course, the worst-case predator situations can result in trafficking or death.
What You Can Do
No parent wants to think about their child in this chilling situation. However, a quick Google search regarding actual predator cases may likely inspire you to adopt targeted safety practices. Here are some focused things you can do to minimize your child’s exposure to predators.
- Have frequent and honest conversations with your child about the specific ways predators may try to befriend them online.
- Be a safe haven. Discuss with your kids why it’s important for them to tell you right away if they feel uncomfortable with a conversation or if they are asked to engage in any inappropriate activity online.
- Review your child’s online profiles often. This includes the content they post, who they follow, and the “friends” who comment or message them.
- Inventory social networks and apps to ensure privacy settings are set to the most restrictive levels possible.
- Discuss the consequences of sharing inappropriate photos with anyone online.
- Check-in with your child frequently throughout the day. If you work at home and get easily engrossed with work, consider setting a timer to remind you to monitor your child’s digital activity.
- Ask simple, critical questions: What apps do your use? What are you watching? Who are you talking to?
- Teach kids how to safely search the web using tools such as McAfee Web Advisor. Consider parental controls designed to block risky sites, filter inappropriate content, and help parents set screen limits. And, don’t be shy about physically checking your child home screen or PC several times a week.
- Create screen limits and a phone curfew to prevent late-night online conversations.
- Be aware of your isolating more or insisting on more privacy to talk with friends.
- If your child is attending class online, don’t assume they are safe. Monitor their web surfing activity through browser history and monitoring. Connect with teachers to inquire about safety protocols.
- Seek out help and report it if your child encounters a threatening situation online. You can also contact your local FBI field office.
There’s no way to avoid online risk 100%. Darker elements will always infiltrate the endless opportunity and good stuff the internet offers. As parents, rather than live in fear, we can be proactive. We can understand the risks, take action to minimize them, and make every effort to equip our kids to deal with any threats they encounter online.