As Your Children’s Screen Time Has Increased During the Pandemic So Has Their Exposure to Potential Sexual Predators
When New Jersey’s stay at home order and social distancing rules eliminated school functions and organized sporting events, children’s screen time on social media, apps, and gaming sites dramatically increased. Unfortunately, sexual predators are skilled at what they do and are always one step ahead. They too have increased their screen time in search of child victims to sexually exploit.
Fortunately, many parents are also home with their children during the pandemic. Now, more than ever, parents need to be aware of their children’s online activity and keep the lines of communication open with them. Children need to feel comfortable discussing with their parents if something occurred online that made them feel uncomfortable. People that children may have ordinarily confided in outside the home such as counselors, teachers, or coaches are no longer as accessible to them on a face-to-face basis, so those safety nets are no longer there.
The current numbers of investigations, arrests, and seizures of child sex abuse material (CSAM, formerly known as child pornography) are very high and are increasing every year, but especially during the pandemic. Lt. John Pizzuro of the New Jersey State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Unit, said during a recent webinar sponsored by the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking that there were 143 arrests of online child sexual predators in 2015 with 1,000 investigations. Arrests rose to 384 in 2019. According to Lt. Pizzuro, one in five children have been sexually solicited online (that is, approached to have sexual conversations, provide sexually explicit photos of themselves, and/or meet outside the home), and 14% have met face-to-face with someone they met online. Lt. Pizzuro further cited a statistic that out of the 9 million people in New Jersey, there are between 200,000 and 400,000 state-based predators online. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recorded a 106% increase in CyberTipline reports of suspected child sexual exploitation during the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic. These numbers don’t just shock and scare, they raise awareness of how serious the problem is and how vulnerable and at risk our children are.
Online predators take advantage of a child’s innocence and openness online, their willingness to give personal information, and to talk about issues at home or with friends. Children are extremely susceptible to predator manipulation. They may believe they are safe because they see no threat right in front of them. Pre-teens and teens are also fixated on how many “likes,” “followers,” and views they receive on social media. They thrive on the attention of their peers and don’t want to be left out, making them subject to peer pressure.
Predators know these motivations and often use fake names and hidden identities, or they pose as children to get children to communicate with them. They “match and mirror” children by listening to the words and terms children use and by learning what they like to hear. Predators begin to talk like kids to gain their trust.
The predator’s main goal is access to children, so they use the same apps and popular gaming sites that children use, such as Fortnite and Minecraft. To earn trust, they give virtual “bucks” or gaming dollars to children so that they can buy more supplies or better uniforms. Police have arrested people on gaming sites for trying to lure children. Predators are also on popular sites that teens use such as TikTok, Snapchat, Whisper, Kik, and Discord.
This method of slowly getting children to engage the predator and comply is called “grooming.” It is a calculated and manipulative process predators use to get children to respond to them, which they hope will progress to children sending explicit pictures of themselves, called “self-producing” or “sexting.” Often, the online predator’s ultimate goal is to meet the child in person outside the home. Online grooming allows the predator simultaneous access to multiple child victims and can be carried out faster than in-person encounters with children the offender knows. According to Lt. Pizzuro, self-production has increased 400% in the U.S., resulting in thousands of unidentified photos of young children. The largest increase is among 8- to 9-year-olds.
Parents need to be aware of who their children are connecting with online and to keep the lines of communication open so children are comfortable talking with them. The following tips can help keep children safe.
Children should not:
The following are resources and websites where you can find additional information and report online child exploitation:
This information last reviewed: Jul 22, 2020