Alongside endless societal ailments created by the COVID-19 pandemic, one less talked about is the fertile grounds it creates for adult predators to target children using the internet and online platforms. In March 2020 alone, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children observed online child exploitation rates doubling compared with the previous year. Pennsylvania’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force also reported arrests in the Philadelphia and surrounding areas in recent months.
Despite being “virtual,” such victimization is very real and can result in severe lifelong harm to children. It involves adults initiating inappropriate interactions and relationships with minors, with sexual motives. Sexually explicit images or videos are often exchanged, and then can be shared publicly with others. Threats, manipulation, and emotional abuse often ensue. Such contacts sometimes escalate into physical encounters that put the child in danger.
Our best, and possibly only, strategy to combat this threat is to raise awareness among parents and educate children.
The social distancing and isolation measures taken to fend from the pandemic have created an unprecedented reality. For adults and children alike, online communications have become the only lifeline to the outside world. Even in previously screen-free households, online platforms had to be introduced to fulfill basic educational, social, and entertainment needs for children of all ages. The necessity of juggling child care with full-time work-from-home, plus the end of the school year, inevitably increased unsupervised screen use.
Meanwhile, children find themselves deprived of their most basic need for direct social interaction with peers and trusted adults. They experience extreme loneliness, boredom, and restlessness, craving human contact, attention, and validation. They are also seeking to escape their unnatural and unsettling reality. Online platforms provide a temporary fulfillment. Apps, learning programs, and video games nowadays provide for real-time chats and messaging functions that enable direct communication with complete strangers. They enable a dialogue as well as an exchange of images and videos. Many parents are not aware of these messaging functions or do not know how to block them. Despite privacy settings, no platform is ironclad.
On the other end of the screen, adult predators lurk — also sitting at home, lonely and bored. They are now free of the worry of coworkers seeing their screen and are less likely to be caught. They are expert con artists, who can pretend to be anybody they desire. They frequent the same apps and games as do children. They initiate casual contact, and may slowly gain a child’s trust by appealing to the exact same vulnerabilities experienced by children during isolation. The FBI, UNICEF, and Europol have issued warning alerts against this imminent threat.
And now, lockdown restrictions are slowly easing. With people feeling intense loneliness, boredom, and desire for adventure, there is a heightened probability that predators, who have gained children’s trust over time, will advance to physical in-person encounters.
Despite school closures, school districts must be proactive and send families a clear, informative reminder of internet safety rules.
But most importantly, parents should have honest conversations with their children. Remind them the virtual world is a wonderful place, but also deceptive. Whenever possible, provide adult supervision over screen use, and make sure the privacy settings in all used platforms and apps are at the highest level. Explain ground rules and warning signs. Make sure children always have a trusted adult, even if not yourself, to contact for help and guidance. Make sure they know to stop the interaction immediately and reach out to that adult if a stranger engages them in correspondence, sends a photo or a video, asks for a photo or a video of the child, asks them to keep their communication a secret, offers a gift, or — most importantly — if someone online suggests an in-person meeting. Remind them to trust their gut — if something makes them feel uncomfortable, concerned, or scared, that means they should shut it off immediately and report.
Online exploitation of children is real, and it can happen to anyone. It’s not a cliché: Action you take today could save your child.
Michal Gilad is a visiting fellow with the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives.