Helping kids stay safe online: FBI expert talks about preventing children from becoming victims
FORT WORTH — Now more than ever, kids face a big threat from sexual predators. And it can happen even if the child never left the home.
The threat comes from the technology that’s a routine part of life from grade school through high school. According to statistics from the FBI, one in five children has received a sexual solicitation online and more than 70 percent report receiving messages from someone they don’t know.
Parents and others who work with children need to know how to keep kids safe when they go online, said Sandra Schrader-Farry, director of Safe Environment for the Diocese of Fort Worth. The Safe Environment program aims to provide that help for parents, educators, and volunteers.
On Oct. 26, Safe Environment offered a special presentation, “The Online World: Keeping Children Safe,” presented by FBI Special Agent Chris Thompson, who works in the crimes against children unit in North Texas.
“I usually find out about something after the damage is done,” Thompson said. “If we educate ourselves and others and prevent a child from becoming a victim in the future, it’s worthwhile.”
Children face many difficult issues related to their use of technology: exposure to inappropriate content, violation of privacy, sexting and “sextortion,” online sexual solicitation, and cyberbullying.
Predators find kids through almost every platform that exposes them to the internet, from social media to video gaming, Thompson said.
They often pose as peers or play on kids’ desire for affirmation. Children ages 12 to 17 are most often victims, but younger children who spend time online are increasingly victimized, he said.
The profile of the typical predator is changing. It used to be primarily middle-aged white men, but now, Thompson said, they see predators from all races, genders, and backgrounds.
Most offenders are males between 36 and 55. Also, 76 percent have no previous sexual criminal history and 63 percent have no other criminal history. Many of them are potentially dangerous, Thompson said.
According to a survey of sex offenders in prison, two-thirds of them have underage victims.
Dangers lurking online
Child pornography is widely available online, and there’s a huge demand for new content. Because of the internet’s ease of use and the number of children using online services, it presents “a target-rich environment.”
During the pandemic, law enforcement officials have noticed a definite uptick in crimes against children because everyone is spending more time online.
Thompson said, “Cyberspace provides an ideal platform for recurring victimization. Once an image is on the cloud, it can never be recalled.”
If a child engages in “sexting” those images can be used as “sextortion,” where predators say they will make the images public if the minor doesn’t send more explicit content. Some 30 percent of teens engage in sexting, according to a study conducted by the Associated Press and MTV.
Half of all child pornography are images kids made and shared, either through threats or what they thought was a trusted relationship.
For hands-on offenses, predators sometimes lure children by posing as someone younger and setting up in-person meetings. Most offenses, however, are committed by family members or friends of the family, at 58 percent. About 8 percent of offenses are carried out by people in trusted positions such as teachers, clergy, or leaders in children’s activities.
The most common social media platforms where children are victimized are Kik, Snapchat, and Instagram, but any platform that includes messaging has been used.
Many male victims never report victimization because they fear the stigma, while girls may avoid reporting because they think they are in love with the offender.
How to prevent victimization
The most important keys for preventing children from becoming victims, Thompson said, are communication and monitoring children’s online activities.
Parents should tell children that images online last forever. Even apps that say they keep the photo or video for a short time can be hijacked by an offender.
Parents and educators also can discuss the potential threats from communicating online with someone they’ve never met and the kind of behavior that can lead to becoming a victim, he said.
Parents should use the “trust but verify” approach to monitoring kids online. They should check their child’s devices frequently and use parental controls and monitoring software.
Thompson also cautioned parents against allowing younger children to have unlimited use of devices and keep a close watch on any usage by tweens and teens, too.
“Very simply, you can’t hand them a cellphone unsupervised. You might as well hand them a loaded gun,” he said.
Parents also need to become very familiar with the technology their kids are using and insist that their sons and daughters “friend” them on social media. If they know mom and dad are checking up on them, they’re less likely to get into a bad situation.
Thompson, who is a parishioner in the diocese, has been doing presentations like this for about 14 years, and the problem is getting worse. But parents and others who care for children can help turn the tide through talking with kids and keeping tabs on their digital activities.
“The more we can educate adults and children, the less likely they are to become victims or offenders,” he said. “It’s really all about prevention.”