As the number of new coronavirus cases continues to hit record highs each day in the United States, school districts across the country have shifted to fully remote learning. While remote school can be challenging for parents, teachers, and students alike, it may be a necessary step to reduce community spread and protect our loved ones.
While remote school gives kids the opportunity to learn from home, it also means that they are online more than ever before. In many cases, parents — who may be at work or working from home — cannot closely supervise them while they are on the internet. This raises a number of potential dangers, from cyber bullying to hate speech and sexually explicit content. It also increases the risk that our children will encounter online predators.
There are any number of ways for predators to gain access to children: social media, online multi-player games, chat apps, and the internet as a whole. There are a number of steps that parents can take to protect their kids from these predators, such as disabling chat functions, setting limits on internet usage, or using a program to limit access to certain sites or explicit content. However, even the best app or software program won’t necessarily prevent predators from reaching out to kids. That is why it is so important to talk to your children, openly and honestly, about online safety.
People who want to take advantage of children and teens use a variety of techniques, known as grooming, to accomplish their goal. Grooming is a term that refers to the behaviors that a predator uses before sexually abusing against a child. Broadly speaking, grooming can involve manipulating the child, their parents, and the community as a whole. It typically involves several stages:
Selecting a victim, often focusing on children who are perceived to be vulnerable or who are easier to access. Children with low self esteem, low confidence or who are exceptionally trusting are often targeted.
Gaining access, which involves separating a child emotionally and physically from their parents or caretakers.
Developing trust with the victim, their guardians, and the community, often by giving the child gifts, special attention, or by sharing secrets with the child.
Desensitizing the victim to touch, by engaging in non-sexual touching to prepare the child for abuse (such as hugs, snuggles, tickling, and wrestling), or by discussing sexual behaviors and content with the child to get them more comfortable with this subject.
Online predators can skip many of these steps, such as gaining the trust of parents and the community, because they typically have direct access to a child. They may attempt to drive a wedge between the child and their loved ones, make promises tailored to the child’s desires, prey on a youth’s desire for romance and adventure, or flatter the child excessively and send gifts and/or money. Over time, a predator will ease the child’s inhibitions by introducing sexual topics or showing them pornography.
As noted above, it can be incredibly difficult to completely prevent an online predator from gaining access to your child — although you can take steps to monitor your child’s internet usage, the sites that they are visiting, and more. In addition to these steps, you can also help your child understand that predators do exist and how they can spot them. According to experts, you should talk to your kids about red flags that show that an online friend cannot be trusted. These signs include:
Telling your child to keep the relationship secret
Promising favors and gift
Asking for a lot of personal information
Insisting on a face-to-face meeting
Contacting your child through multiple platforms and services
Initiating intimate discussions about your child’s appearance
By teaching your child what to look for, it may make it easier for them to spot a potential predator — and may increase the likelihood that they will turn to you if they believe that an online “friend” may be grooming them.
Be sure to maintain an open dialogue about internet safety. This can help to assure your kids that they can come to you if they are worried about something, rather than being afraid that they will get in trouble for something that they say or do online.
As always, if you need help, we are here for you. Our hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-888-832-2272. Calls to our hotline are free of charge, confidential, and can be anonymous.