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Just a Click Away From a Child Predator

It happens too often. An older man reaches out to a young girl on social media, sometimes as young as 10 years old. The man knows a lot about the tween, like that she lives in Highlands Ranch, plays soccer, listens to Taylor Swift, and her favorite subject is writing. He also knows that she frequently goes to Park Meadows Mall with her friends, and the family eats at the local pizza shop in Southglenn. He knows all of this information because she has an Instagram and Facebook account. What happens next depends on what type of predator has just contacted the child.

“The thing to remember is that predators are after one of three things. They’re either after some kind of explicit pictures – getting content. They want to meet in person, or they want to extort that person for money. Sometimes it’s all three, but those are kind of the distinct pathways,” says John DiGirolamo, author and Board President of Bringing Our Valley Hope, a nonprofit whose objective is to end human trafficking in Central Colorado. 

It’s too easy now. With just a click of a button, these predators have an ocean of information, from pictures, videos, and social status to hobbies, family members, and the school a child attends. A child could be sitting at the kitchen table, with parents only feet away, and no one knows they’re being sexually harassed, manipulated, or emotionally abused. 

Every day, self-conscious tweens and hormonal teens accept friend and follow requests from random people. It’s been normalized because they either want to be an influencer or they see it as a popularity contest.

“Many kids spend a lot of time online, and today’s kids look at online friends as real friends,” DiGirolamo explains. “I’ve been told by several police officers that popular suburban teenage girls can have 5,000 friends and followers…I guarantee, if you have 5,000 friends as a teenager, there are definitely some predators in there.”

However, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok aren’t the only platforms these predators are lurking on. Discord has become a popular hub for these types of people, and any video game that is online or has a live chat most likely has an older man lying in wait. Child predators will wait on games that children are most interested in, like Minecraft and Fortnite.

“I saw a post by a parent who said that a predator was trying to get ahold of her daughter through Fitbit because she was posting workouts,” DiGirolamo shares.

Most of the time, these predators use fake profiles to contact children. They will change their accounts to match and relate to their target. In some cases, they have dozens of profiles depending on who they’re after. The young girl who likes Taylor Swift, plays soccer, and her favorite subject is writing might encounter a predator whose account has the same interests and hobbies.

The tactics are different depending on the predator and the child they are trying to manipulate.

Through these different tactics, the predator is trying to build trust and groom the child. Children are inherently the most vulnerable community, and the predators know this. They want to manipulate these children so they can either get explicit content, meet in person, or exploit the child.

“A lot of people think that they always go after girls, and that’s not true. But, a predator will approach a girl and a boy differently. For a girl, they’re going to want content, pictures, and videos – they’re going to want to meet at a motel. For a boy, they want to extort for money,” DiGirolamo says.

It’s normal for teenagers to be self-conscious, confused, and embarrassed, but these predators also know this. If an attractive girl sends a friend request to a 13-year-old, self-conscious, pimple-faced young boy on social media – what happens? Typically, the attractive girl will begin sending explicit photos of herself to the boy. But the boy isn’t talking to a beautiful woman; he is more likely messaging an older man. The predator then will message something like, I’ve sent you photos, now you have to.

The predator is manipulating the self-conscious boy. A beautiful woman just sent him explicit photos; he feels obligated to participate. And unfortunately, many boys fall into this trap.

As soon as he presses “send” for the images, the tables turn. The account demands money for the photos and threatens to post them online. When this tactic is used, these young boys feel isolated and embarrassed, and many do not share this information with their parents out of fear. Some teens even take their own life.

Whether a young girl or boy was manipulated to do something for a child predator, it’s not their fault. But this kind of guilt can change their life. Even behind a dimly lit phone screen, these types of people can do unspeakable damage to our children. 

Protecting Our Children
From talking about Stranger Danger and how they should react if an adult approaches them in public to the Sex Talk when they get their first serious boyfriend or girlfriend, certain conversations must be had.

The child predator discussion will look different depending on the child’s age. Online resources like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation can help start this conversation. Another resource is DiGirolamo’s book, It’s Not About the Predator: A Parent’s Guide to Internet & Social Media Safety, which is a practical and easy-to-read guide about the dangers of online predators.

Moreover, tweens and teens are moody and hormonal, and it can be challenging to know when something is wrong when their response is consistently “I’m fine.” It’s not uncommon for kids to be sneaky, lie, and hide things from their parents. 

“If all of a sudden, your happy, go-lucky 14-year-old is withdrawn or defiant, or both, that’s a big red flag. Now of course, that can mean all kinds of things for teenagers, right?” DiGirolamo shares. “But some of the bigger ones are if somebody seems to be addicted to their phone and their social media or gaming, things like that – that’s a big sign. And then there’s some I would call kind of real practical science, whereas if you have a child or teenager and all of a sudden they get Amazon packages that you didn’t order, and they get these unexplained gifts.”

As a parent, sometimes the best thing to do is trust your gut. If your child is acting different – more moody, agitated, or depressed – ask for their phone. 

DiGirolamo also encourages parents to use parental control apps like Bark and Canopy. In some cases, parental controls can protect children and teens from accessing certain information on social media platforms and Google. But this doesn’t work for every rebellious teen because there are videos upon videos showing how to break these controls and hide things from parents. Another option is getting your child a Dumb Phone, which has the limited features of a smartphone. 

We live in a day and age where the phrase “It won’t happen to me” no longer applies, and ignorance is not bliss. Technology has changed the reach of these child predators, and as parents, you need to be vigilant. 

“If you don’t know what’s on that kid’s phone, then you’re already behind the eight ball,” DiGirolamo warns. “You’ve got to have some kind of technology helping you out, but you also have to have those difficult conversations.” 

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