Here’s a stat you probably didn’t know before now:
97% of teenage boys and 83% of teenage girls in the U.S. play video games.
Yes, you read that correctly—almost every single boy and most girls across America play video games in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center.
And sexual predators are making the most of this fact.
Here’s an overview of the growing gaming world exploitation crisis.
Video games as “hunting grounds” for predators
The gaming industry, a profit giant that generated over $43 billion in revenue in 2019, is experiencing a child exploitation epidemic as adult sexual predators utilize gaming features and culture to groom young children into abusive online relationships.
A New York Times exposé explains just how serious this issue has become. As one expert comments, “These virtual spaces are essentially hunting grounds.”
It often begins when a predatory gamer, usually an adult posing as a child or teen, employs built-in game chat features to start innocuous conversations with underage players.
The predator then desensitizes his child victim to certain types of imagery, language, or crossed social boundaries through a process known as “grooming,” eventually creating enough of an (inappropriate) connection with the child that he is poised to make abusive demands.
Either continuing in the same game chats, or moving to social platforms such as Kik Messenger or Instagram, predators’ ultimate goal is to coerce these children into sending sexually explicit pictures and videos of themselves. Predators then use those images as blackmail, threatening violence or exposure if they don’t comply.
Department of Homeland Security special agent Matt Wright explains this tactic to the Times:
“The first threat is, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m going to post on social media, and by the way, I’ve got a list of your family members and I’m going to send it all to them.’ If they don’t send another picture, they’ll say, ‘Here’s your address—I know where you live. I’m going to come kill your family.’”
The demands often get increasingly explicit, demeaning, and exploitative. Predators gather personal info on the child—what siblings are in the house, for example—and might even demand photos of a younger sister or brother in exchange for not posting the shared nudes online.
A broader sexualization of the gaming world
Child sexual predation isn’t the only concern facing the massive gaming industry these days.
Popular online streaming platforms, used primarily for viewers to watch their favorite gamers play and compete, are also proving unsafe for users.
The issue hit headlines recently when the wildly popular streaming site Twitch was found to be using a particular gamer’s channel to live-stream pornography. After the world’s most popular streamer, known as Ninja, switched from Twitch to Mixer for his work, he found that Twitch was using the popularity of his old channel to promote pornographic streaming. Tens of thousands of viewers tuned into the live-stream for over ten hours before the stream was removed.
And Ninja’s channel hijacking hasn’t been the only incident of porn streaming on Twitch. Despite their community guidelines against “nudity, pornography, and other sexual content,” Twitch has allowed sexual video content of various kinds, angering many in the gaming world.
At the heart of it is porn
So hardcore porn has found its way onto yet another platform where it isn’t welcome—not surprising, right? But let’s go back to the sexual predator gamers—porn and its harmful effects are behind this exploitation trend as well, both directly and indirectly.
These online predators often use pornographic content to desensitize the children they are grooming, manipulating the kids into letting down appropriate barriers.
And of course, the nude photos and videos the children send to these predators are themselves child exploitation images, also known as child porn. Once a predator has access to these images, they can be spread online and used to humiliate, threaten, shame, and exploit these kids. And the effects are real—one FBI study of sextortion cases like these found that over a quarter of such cases resulted in attempted or successful suicide.
And there are indirect connections to porn’s harms here, as well. Research shows that porn has an escalatory effect on a consumer’s brain—over time, a consumer may need more and more hardcore versions of porn in order to experience the same pleasurable dopamine rush to the brain. It’s a destructive path that can take consumers further and further into the dark underbelly of online porn.
We are by no means saying that everyone who consumes porn will end up preferring to groom children on gaming sites. Because of porn’s addictive nature, however, it is not uncommon for someone to end up gravitating towards immensely unhealthy genres of porn when they did not start out that way.
What’s more, porn desensitizes the brain to find otherwise unacceptable practices normal. This is even true of child porn. Having escalated from milder porn into child porn, a consumer’s brain may start to thrive on fantasies of children. In extreme cases, consumers are at risk for pursuing in real life the behaviors and experiences of child exploitation they have taken in through porn.
How do we respond?
The FBI, the Justice Department, local authorities around the country, and other organizations are all doing their part to catch perpetrators and set up safeguards for children. Gaming companies are also having conversations about how to proceed.
But each one of us can do our part, too.
It all comes down to helping kids understand sexual boundaries at an age-appropriate level. Predators’ grooming tactics manipulate kids into letting their guards down and then feeling like they have no way out. We can encourage the children around us in their confidence and ability to say no to sexual demands and to tell trustworthy adults about such interactions. Chances are they have been exposed to mature content in more ways than one.
Experts emphasize the fact that these children are victims and should not be punished or shamed for what they have done and experienced. Parents, it is important to maintain open dialogue with your kids about what they are facing and who they are befriending in their video game platforms without shaming them for lines that may have already been crossed.
There is hope—commit to having conversations with both kids and peers about the harms of porn and the dangerous reality of porn-inspired sexual exploitation.