No parent wants his or her child to become the victim of online sexual predators. But we can’t simply turn a blind eye and hope for the best. Technology keeps changing how our kids (and we!) interact with the world. Online sexual predators continually develop new ways to deceive our kids. Therefore, we need to teach our children to recognize the tactics of online sexual predators and know when a predator may be pursuing them.

We’re not just talking about sites like Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. Gaming consoles, services, and sites – such as Xbox, Stream, Discord, Twitch, and Roblox –  are also a threat because of built-in chat rooms. What’s more, predators sometimes move gaming conversations to platforms like Facebook Messenger, Kik, and Skype for greater privacy.

Online predators and “sextortion”

Unfortunately, online offenders can be aggressive. “Sextortion” is a growing problem. The 2016 report to the U.S. Congress from The National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction explains:

Sextortion is a growing type of online sexual exploitation in which offenders coerce or blackmail victims into providing sexually explicit images or videos of themselves, often (with)… threats of posting the images publicly or sending the images to the victim's friends and family. Results of the 2016 National Strategy survey indicate that sextortion is by far the most significantly growing threat to children. (Emphasis added.)

Therefore, let’s look at why children and youth are easy targets for online sexual predators and what we, as parents, can do to protect and teach our children about sexual online predators.

Children and youth are especially vulnerable  

Anyone at any age can be a target for offenders. But kids, teens, and young adults are especially easy targets for online sexual predators because they can be easy to trick, manipulate and threaten. Additionally, young people are looking to connect with others online, to be “liked” and have an attractive online presence. Furthermore, the world of cyberspace has become a popular place to begin a friendship or launch a dating relationship. Online sexual predators take advantage of the way young people use social media and respond to innocent requests for connection with comments that flatter and encourage further communication. Therefore, we need to teach our children to be especially cautious when talking to strangers online.

The decision-making and critical thinking parts of a child or teen's brain are still developing, so they may not recognize lies or manipulation right away. They tend to lack the life experience to discern dishonesty and manipulation.

Teach about risk

Furthermore, later in development, the adolescent brain tends to naturally pursue risk, which can be both good and bad. On one hand, when harnessed correctly and according to God’s design, healthy risk enables teens to successfully leave home and pursue careers. On the other hand, risk can be dangerous and destructive, especially when coupled with the tendency for many adolescents to feel invincible and be impulsive. In addition, technological advances have increased the potential for the latter, especially because technology can distort reality and make a child think they are more grown up, more powerful, more anonymous and more connected than they really are.  These factors magnify the openness to risk-taking that are potentially self-destructive.

Teach about addictive feelings

One danger in the world of technology is the dopamine rush that sexual images, sexual communication, and sexual encounters provide. Dopamine is an incredible and very necessary neurotransmitter in our neuro-communication system that helps us have motivation and anticipate rewards among other things.

It’s triggered by sexual images and behaviour similar to drugs. This means it initiates the process of getting hooked and pursuing risk. This physiological anticipation of rewards can be overwhelming and addictive.

However, you’re in the best position to determine whether your child might be vulnerable to this kind of deception and victimization. Is your daughter troubled? Does she struggle in school? Does your son deal with social rejection or face bullying? Is he new in the neighborhood, unpopular with his classmates, or insecure? If so, the desire for human connection could make your child an easy target for online sexual predators.

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How parents can protect and guide their children

As parents, we are called to nurture, validate, guard, guide and teach our children. That’s a sobering thought – and can feel overwhelming.

But remember that relationship is the starting point for all of it. Whether you look for ways to connect with your teen or help your kids become resilient, the bottom line is love. Children who get affirmation at home generally aren’t inclined to look for it elsewhere.

It’s impossible to avoid every threat from online sexual predators, of course. But the best approach to protecting your child is prevention. Here are some things you can do to minimize the risks:

Awareness

Know the following potential warning signs of a person who’s being groomed for abuse, and watch for them in your child:

  • sudden and non-typical mood shifts and irregular behaviours (changes in sleep patterns, changes in attitude like irritability and rebelliousness, stealing from family members or friends, acting older than their chronological age, more attention to appearance, loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, sudden stress and anxiety, quitting sports or extracurricular activities)
  • isolation
  • weight change or sudden and unnecessary interest in dieting
  • rapid shift in beliefs and convictions
  • secretiveness (sneaking out at night, skipping school or work, demanding alone time in their room with their device and periods of unaccounted time)
  • sexual behaviour (using birth control or looking and acting provocatively)
  • possess expensive items they couldn’t afford to buy themselves.

Safety

It’s helpful to teach our children that it’s illegal and dangerous to send pictures without your clothes to another person. You can discuss the fact that pictures will be kept and shared by the other person even if they promise not to do so. The photos are never gone. Anyone asking them to take off their clothes is wanting to “consume” (use up) them much like food or an object rather than care about them and contribute to their well-being as a person (Dig into the bonus section at the end of this article for a deeper look at online sexual predators and their tactics.)

Supervise without being overly protective. Never blindly surrender the care of your child to another person without questions. And don’t hesitate to call the police if you suspect or know that your child is being targeted by an online predator.

Openness

Let your children know that it’s safe for them to confide in you if they have questions or concerns – or if they’ve made a mistake in this area. Fearing an explosive reaction can keep a child from being open. All this to say, help from parents is most effective when it’s given with a balance of grace and truth.

Teach your children about the threat of online sexual predators. Ask them if they know kids at school who’ve been contacted by someone suspicious. Has anyone ever sent your child an explicit photo, or asked her to send one? Ask her thoughts on the topic and how she feels about it.

The talk

Discuss proper terms for anatomy and share slang names as well (where age appropriate). Have ongoing conversations about the beauty of sex as God created it. Teach your children that they’re worthy of respect and that their bodies should be treated with care and respect. Teach them the importance of treating the opposite sex as brothers and sisters in Christ who bear the image of God. Let’s teach our children that both boys and girls have a gift, their body, that they get to give their spouse.  

Not sure where to start? You’ll find some basic goals and guidance in our free, downloadable booklet The Talk: Healthy Sexuality Education. You might also consider our video-based program Launch Into the Teen Years to help you spark important ongoing conversations with your preteen in preparation for the teen years.

Freedom

Remind your child that freedom is found in being trustworthy. How much privacy should you give your kids? Consider adopting a nothing-to-hide policy for electronics in your family, without any rights to privacy. No matter how much the kids argue, they do not have a right to online privacy from you. Emphasize the fact that your intention is to be protective, not intrusive.

Install guards on all electronic devices. Check them often and keep them current. Use a web-filtering company like Covenant Eyes. And don’t forget about apps on smart phones. You can use app-monitoring software such as Forcefield. (Learn more about helping your kids develop healthy technology habits with our downloadable booklet A Parent's Guide to Today's Technology.)

The truth about living in a broken world

As a parent, one of the most difficult truths to accept is that we can’t protect our children from everything bad in the world. Phillip Yancey says it well:

God provides support and solidarity, yes, but not protection – at least not the kind of protection we desperately long for.

. . . We have only the stubborn hope – so different from naive optimism – that the story of Jesus, which includes both death and resurrection, gives a bright clue to what God will do for the entire planet. Optimism promises that things will gradually improve; Christian hope promises that creation will be transformed. Until then, God evidently prefers not to intervene in every instance of evil or natural disaster, no matter how grievous. Rather, God has commissioned us as agents of intervention in the midst of a hostile and broken world.

As we trust the Lord with the bodies and souls of our children, we take one step at a time into our calling as parents. We do our best to stay informed and to teach our children about the potential dangers of online sexual predators and protect them. And we humbly rest in His faithfulness.

Finally, pray this prayer of blessing over your kids that is found in 2 Thessalonians 3:5: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”


Bonus section: A deeper look at online predators and their tactics

Unfortunately, there’s no typical profile for a potential offender. An offender can be any age, male or female, and from any socio-economic status. But you can teach your children because online sexual predators have the same goal: gain their target’s trust and groom the target for abuse. That process involves selection, setup and grooming:

Selection:

  • The major characteristic of a child who is selected is they are kind.
  • Additionally, the offender purposefully looks for a target who is loyal, truthful, dedicated, vulnerable, and relationally or socially naïve.
  • A child or teen who is sensitive to being hurt can also be targeted.

Setup:

  • Once the offender has selected a target, they arrange opportunities to connect or hang out, either online or in person.
  • The offender carefully collects information about the target to strategically use in the future.
  • They deliberately work to gain the target’s trust and confidence by pretending to be loyal. An alliance of “us” against “them” is created.
  • In addition, the offender works to make the relationship with the target “special” in any way possible. They give the target a sense of belonging, self-esteem, empowerment, being understood, or being needed. That is to say, anything is said to make the target feel they “need” the offender and that the offender “needs” them.
  • Another tactic the offender uses is giving gifts (such as phones, jewelry, or credits on gaming platforms), exchanging favours, and sharing “personal information.” (They will pretend to reveal themselves, while not being truthful.)
  • They might take advantage of a younger target’s natural curiosity about sex by telling “dirty” jokes, playing sexual games, or sharing pornographic photos. Offenders also often request photos of their targets. (If those pics don’t begin as nude selfies, requests soon ramp up to that.)

Grooming:

  • The offender wants to be known as powerful, confident, socially attractive, and an “older” youth. At the same time, they come across as someone who wants to be understood. They want to be pitied, sympathized, and excused (and they’ll often make up lies about their life story to achieve that).
  • If anything goes wrong, the offender makes the child believe it is their fault.
  • Also, the offender creates a sense of secrecy about the relationship and intentionally tires to isolate the child from their support systems.
  • They slowly sexualize the entire relationship.
  • Finally, they work hard to maintain a sense of control of the child or teen. To do this they try to make the child afraid of them by threatening or blackmailing.

In Matthew 10:16 Jesus admonishes the disciples to be “wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” because they will be sheep among wolves. Sadly, the times haven’t changed.

The challenge in parenting is the healthy traits we want to teach our children are the same traits that make them vulnerable to online sexual predators. Therefore, be intentional and spend as much time teaching your children to be wise and discerning as you do teaching them to be kind and loyal.

© 2019 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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