Social media, Snapchat, multiplayer games, dating apps, and adult chatrooms. What do these have in common?
They are all online places where young teenagers can be exposed to adult online predators. The question is how common is this and what can you do to protect your children?
It seems like every time I read the news there is a new story coming out of Michigan about a young teenage girl being abused by an adult or targeted by an online predator.
Michigan Girl Targeted by Online Predator
A recent report out of Saginaw, Michigan seems to paint a dire picture. A Kansas man drove 20 hours to meet a 13-year-old girl from Saginaw. He ended up being arrested on third-degree criminal sexual assault charges.
The story doesn’t say how they met, although police believe they met online. It does say the girl told her parents after the encounter, which led to the man’s arrest.
Michigan law states that the sexual penetration of a person between 13 and 16 years old constitutes third-degree criminal sexual conduct. Third-degree criminal sexual conduct can also include force or coercion. This is a 15-year felony in the state of Michigan.
How Common Are Online Predators?
The good news, according to Common Sense Media, is that “According to the University of New Hampshire’s Youth Internet Safety Study (YISS), reports of unwanted sexual solicitations declined 53 percent between 2000 and 2010. As of 2010, only 9 percent of kids who use the internet received an unwanted sexual solicitation.”
Also, according to Common Sense Media: “When there’s a report of an online predator (like the one about Roblox in 2017), multiple news outlets jump on the story, and they often appear in many outlets over a week or two, so it may feel like it’s more common than it is. Also, it makes for a popular article since it plays on parents’ fears.”
Data on Online Predators
However, here is the data on online predators. Because they are real and some children are more at risk than others, according to Common Sense Media.
- According to the New England Journal of Public Policy, contact with online predators happens mostly in chat rooms, on social media, or in the chat feature of a multiplayer game (Roblox, Minecraft, Clash of Clans, World of Warcraft, and so on).
- Games that aren’t designed only for kids have fewer controls, settings, and safeguards.
- Any app or online space that allows contact with strangers without moderation or age verification can allow contact between kids and adult strangers.
- Teens sometimes visit adult sites, chat rooms, and dating apps out of curiosity about sex and romance.
- Only 5 percent of online predators pretend they are kids. Most predators reveal that they are older – which is especially appealing to 12-to-15-year-olds who are most often targeted.
- Some predators initiate sexual talk or request pictures immediately and back off if refused. They’re in it for an immediate result.
- In contrast, some predators engage in “bunny hunting,” which is the process of picking a potential victim for “grooming”: They’ll look at social media posts and public chats to learn about the kid first.
The Grooming Phase of Online Predators
Once the predator has selected someone, they may begin the grooming phase. The grooming often involves:
- Friending the target’s contacts
- Engaging in increasingly personal conversations to build trust
- Taking the conversation to other platforms (like instant messaging)
- Requesting pictures, and
- Finally, requesting offline contact.
Sometimes if a kid shares one compromising picture, a predator will engage in “sextortion,” which involves demanding more pictures or contact under threat of exposure or harm.
In addition, predators target kids who post revealing pictures, divulge past sexual abuse, and/or engage in sexual talk online.
There is some conflicting research about what ages are most at-risk, but 12 to 15 seems to be prime time, and girls are more frequent victims.
Most often, teens engage in relationships with predators willingly, though they often keep them secret.
How You Can Keep Your Kids Safe
We’re all worried about kids and strangers, but the reality is that young teens can engage in this behavior willingly.
Kids need to be taught that if they put a nude digital picture into the world, it becomes a part of their digital footprint. A person’s digital footprint is something that needs to be protected, just like any other part of a person’s reputation.
Kids are also at more risk of doing something illegal themselves by taking, posting or sharing nude pictures of themselves or their friends.
For other ways to be involved in your child’s digital world and keep them safe, see Common Sense Media’s article. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/the-facts-about-online-predators-every-parent-should-know
If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges related to online activities, you need to get the help. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. You need to protect your future.