HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Children have been online now more than ever, and online predators are taking advantage. The National Center For Missing and Exploited Children says it’s seen a 98 percent increase in online enticement reports since the pandemic began.
NCMEC says predators are openly talking on the darknet about how to use the pandemic to their advantage and entice children for content.
“Many kids are online, more than they might have been otherwise. The fact that they are spending more time online just puts them at greater risk for being taken advantage of by someone who doesn’t have good intentions,” says the Prevention Director at The National Children’s Advocacy Center, Pam Clasgens.
Many of these predators pretend to be just another kid and lie about their identity.
“Someone who wants to take advantage of kids will pretend to be younger than they are, and obviously lie about their identity,” says Clasgens.
The conversations start simple, like two friends getting to know each other. Once it seems like there is a solid foundation to the relationship that’s when things escalate.
“If they are really skilled at this they will spend some time really listening and making the child feel heard and understood. So that this child feels like this is someone they can trust, and someone who cares about them. The predator takes advantage of that,” says Clasgens.
Children most vulnerable to online predators are children having trouble at school, feeling alone, or suffering from depression and other mental illnesses.
“They might ask kids a lot of personal questions, give lots of compliments, they might even offer to send kids a gift,” says Clasgens.
“Then from there they might be asking kids for something more explicit.”
These predators are skilled at using a child’s curiosity and need to belong against them.
“Kids often just want to belong. They might be curious, someone might take advantage of their curiosity,” says Clasgens.
“Even kids that aren’t depressed or lonely can be taken advantage of pretty easily by someone who is very skilled. What they are going to do is look for a way to relate to that child, make a connection with them, and make them feel validated and listened to.”
Child start to feel a connection through all of this, and feel like this is a person they can trust.
“The predator, takes advantage of that, and can trick them into doing all sorts of things,” says Clasgens.
The best way to prevent your child from becoming vulnerable to a predator is open communication. Clasgens suggests talking to your child in a way that will not scare them.
She suggests playing a “what if” game with your children to ask questions like, “What if someone started talking to you online that you don’t know in real life?” This creates an open dialogue with your child and can let them know your expectations for behavior online and offline.
“Have just an open conversation with your child. Say, “Hey I’ve noticed this about you lately...Is something going on that we should talk about? What’s going on with you? How are you doing?” The child may not talk to you right then, but what you’ve done is opened that door and let your child know that you’re open and you’re here for them,” says Clasgens.
Clasgens suggests to parents to watch your facial expressions if your child does tell you sensitive information.
“As parents it is easy for us to get upset when they tell us something that didn’t go right, says Clasgens.
“If we just listen, that is the best way to insure when they really do have a big problem, and these problems online get to be pretty big problems... They are going to tell us about it.”
Another way to protect your child is to do your research about the apps your child has on their phone. Clasgens says there are new apps everyday so it is almost impossible to keep up. However, it is your responsibility to know what your child has on their phone.
The warning signs that your child might be in danger are any rapid changes in things like mood, weight, and grades. The warning signs can be different for every child.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to know is it is never the child’s fault.
“They often think it is there fault. Of course it is not their fault. Someone who intends to take advantage of a child is going to work really hard to do that,” says Clasgens.
Clasgens suggest that anyone looking for more information visit, The National Center of Missing and Exploited Children.