Modern-day life with the internet has many benefits from convenience to connections. But like any tool, it can be used by people who choose to harm others.
Online predators search for teenagers who they think they can manipulate and sexually exploit. Often, they create a false identity or pretend to be a teenager to reach their potential victims.
Some of these adults are sex traffickers who use social media to find potential victims and lure them into being forced to sell sex. Others practice “sextortion,” coercing or pressuring a young person to send sexually explicit images and videos of themselves. Others are just abusive individuals who seek young people to manipulate or exploit for their own pleasure.
Sexual abuse occurs in different scenarios. It could happen when your teen meets an online “friend” in person for the first time or it could happen exclusively online when they are sitting next to you on the couch.
Despite it all, it is possible for your teens to have fun online, spending time with their friends and even making new ones. The key is to be aware of what they’re into, equipped with tips to protect your child, and prepared to deal with an abusive situation if it arises.
Online sexual abuse seems to be increasing each year. According to the NSPCC, 1 in 25 teens between 11-17 years old have sent, received, or been asked to send sexual content to an adult. That’s nearly 200,000 young people in the UK.
Predators can make contact almost anywhere online: video game platforms, comments on YouTube, Reddit threads, social media, messaging apps, and more. It’s not practical to avoid the internet because something bad could happen. Instead, help your teen be aware of potential red flags in messages, comments, or requests they receive.
Keep in mind that being cautious of strangers doesn’t completely solve the problem. According to a 2017 survey by Thorn, teens were nearly equally likely to have met the person threatening them (sextortion) through a new online connection as an existing offline relationship.
Online sexual exploitation usually happens through grooming, which is a process perpetrators use to build a trusting relationship with a victim before attempting sexual abuse.
We spoke with Chief Marketing Officer Titania Jordan at Bark, which is a monitoring tool that sifts through messages and social media accounts on your child’s devices to alert you if there’s something unsafe, to understand the red flags teens should watch out for.
Flattery is used by perpetrators to make a young person feel important. It can break down defense barriers and build trust. Examples could be anything from, “Have you ever been a model?” to “Wow, you have such pretty feet.”
Let your teen know that repeated and excessive flattery from one particular person is something to be aware of. If it makes them uncomfortable, empower them to speak with you and block the user. Instill the idea in them that just because someone pays them a compliment, they don’t have to continue the conversation.
Offers to send coins in a video game, cash, electronic devices, or any other kind of gift is a clear red flag.
“There’s really no need for that,” Jordan said. “That is not typical teen or tween behavior. That is coming from an adult that has other reasons to be doing so.”
Modeling job offer
Talk to your teen about scam job offers. If someone is telling your child they are beautiful, followed by an offer to make quick and easy cash, their red flag should go up. Modeling job offers are used by traffickers to lure teenage girls into being forced to sell sex. We stand by the saying, “If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.”
Asking for personal information
A survey of 10 to 17-year-olds revealed that 46% had shared their personal information with someone they didn’t know. The likelihood that they would give out personal details online increased with age.
Questions like: “Where do you live,” “What school do you go to,” “Are your parents home,” “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend,” are examples of information online friends don’t really need to know.
Perpetrators control their victims by isolating them from people in their real lives. This doesn’t necessarily mean physical isolation, but could be emotional. A predator may tell your child to only talk to them about what they are thinking and feeling. They will say they share a special bond with your child, that they understand more than parents do.
Chances are your teen has felt at least once that you as a parent don’t understand what they are going through, that’s why this line works. Be genuine in letting your teens know they can talk to you about anything, that you are willing to listen and understand them better.
Predators rely on their victims keeping their relationship or abuse a secret. Titania Jordan said it’s helpful to teach teens to consider if they’d be okay with sharing an online interaction with you, and if not, why?
“Is it because it’s inappropriate? Is it dangerous? Let’s think about why.”
Sending sexually explicit material
Some predators will ask sexually explicit questions as a way to desensitize their victim. They may send a pornographic image to your child and ask them if they know what it is.
This is sexual abuse. Your teen may want to delete messages so they don’t get punished, but these messages are evidence of a potential crime. Help your child understand that if they are ever sent explicit material, it is not their fault and that they should speak with you before deleting.
Requests for sexual photos
With the increased popularity of sexting, chances are high your teen will be asked to send a nude pic at some point. There’s a difference between teen sexting and an adult posing as a teen asking for photos they will sell, trade, or post online. In this article, we are talking about the latte, but it’s advisable to set some boundaries for your teen so they can navigate any naked picture request.
According to Titania Jordan, the safest way to play the situation is to not send a photo that if it were to be shared beyond the person it was intended for, it would embarrass the sender or cause them harm.
According to a 2017 Thorn report, threats can begin early in cases involving online offenders, with 60% of victims saying they started receiving threats within two weeks. Nearly half reported being threatened daily. Perpetrators may threaten to post online or forward a nude photo your teen previously sent to them unless they send more photos or videos.
For many teens, this is a terrifying escalation of a relationship they thought was friendly or romantic. If you discover such threats are being made to your teen, act immediately to remove the predator from their life.
What to do if something happens?
The most important thing you can do as a parent is let your teen know that they can talk to you about anything. If your child does disclose sexual abuse, be empathetic and understand that it’s a difficult subject to discuss.
You may feel angry or upset that someone did this to your child, but your negative reaction can make it even more difficult for your teen to talk about. Reassure them that it is not their fault, even if they initiated the conversation with the adult. As a minor, your teenager cannot legally consent to a relationship with an adult, and so they are not at fault for where the conversation goes.
Avoid punishment and blame
Teens may also be concerned about speaking up for fear of retaliation. Believing them instead of blaming them can go a long way.
“If your child does come to you with something concerning, your first reaction shouldn’t be to take away their gaming platform or their phone,” Titania Jordan said. “Let them know you’re a safe place—that they can talk to you about anything that might be concerning to them and you all will work it out together. You can problem solve together.”
Record and report all evidence
Take screenshots, document usernames, and time stamps. Report any abuse to law enforcement first, instead of the social media platform. As Titania Jordan explained, law enforcement can address the problem with the social media company, whereas if you go directly to the platform to have a user blocked, that evidence may be lost. The activity may also tip off the predator who will then go dark and resurface under another name and IP address to continue exploiting children.
Protect your child by getting them away from their abuser. If you are not sure who to contact, call the ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453) or for immediate help call 911.
Seek professional help for your teen
Most teens will say they are “okay” or “fine” after this kind of event. Hopefully, they are, but it’s worth having your teen meet with a trusted medical professional to talk through any feelings or questions they may have.
As we said from the beginning, technology and online communication have a lot to offer, but we need to watch out.
“It’s not going to happen every day, it’s not going to happen to every kid, but it could happen,” Titania Jordan said. “It’s the same reason why we wear a bicycle helmet when you ride a bike because you could fall and get hurt. It’s why we lock our doors at night, why we have a fire alarm, and a carbon monoxide detector. We play it safe, just in case.”