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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.
Some of these adults are sex traffickers, which is a person who illegally sells a person under 18 years old into commercial sex or otherwise forces, tricks, or coerces someone into commercial sex. Others practice “sextortion,” coercing or pressuring a young person to send sexually explicit images and videos of themselves. Still, others manipulate young people to send them explicit photos and videos for no reason other than their own arousal.
Sexual abuse occurs in different scenarios. It could happen when you meet an online “friend” in person for the first time or it could happen exclusively online when you’re sitting next to your parents on the couch.
All of this sounds scary and even dramatic, like there’s no one you can trust. But it’s possible to still have fun online, hanging out with friends and making new ones, while being aware and equipped with some tips to protect yourself online.
If you spend much time online, you probably already know that 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 completely avoid the internet because something bad could happen. Instead, you can be aware of the messages, comments, and requests you receive.
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. While these predators are generally clever, most use similar grooming tactics. The good news is, this helps to identify a situation that may be sketchy.
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 phone to alert your parents or guardian if there’s something unsafe. She told us how you can understand the red flags to watch out for.
It feels good to get lots of likes on your Instagram photo. It’s nice to have your friends take notice and comment, even flirt a bit. But be aware that flattery is used by perpetrators to make you feel important and to build trust. Examples could be anything from, “Have you ever been a model?” to “Wow, you have such pretty feet.”
Flattery that is repeated and excessive from someone you don’t know is something to be aware of. If it makes you uncomfortable, then it’s okay to speak to an adult and block the user.
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,” Titania Jordan said. “That is not typical teen or tween behavior. That is coming from an adult who has other reasons to be doing so.”
Modeling job offer
If someone says you are “so beautiful” followed by an offer to make quick cash, your red flag should go up. Modeling job offers are sometimes used by traffickers to lure teenage girls, especially, into a sexually exploitative trap. We stand by the saying, “If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.”
Asking for personal information
Requests for your personal information may seem harmless, but it’s best to keep it to yourself. 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 about you.
Perpetrators control their victims by isolating them from people in their real lives. This doesn’t necessarily mean physical isolation, but it could be emotional. A predator may tell you to only talk to them about what you are thinking and feeling. They will say they have a special bond with you, that they understand more than your parents.
Chances are, at some point, you’ve felt like your parents don’t get you. Everyone has been there, and that’s why this line works. Flag it and have the tough conversation with a trusted adult.
If a conversation starts to lean toward something that feels like it needs to be a secret, that should be a red flag. Pause for a moment and consider where the conversation is going. Titania Jordan said that it can be helpful to ask yourself if you would be okay with sharing that discussion with your parents, 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 and ask if you know what it is.
This is sexual abuse. Know that it’s not your fault if someone sends you an explicit image, video, or message. You may want to delete it so you don’t get in trouble, but these messages are evidence of a potential crime. Speak to a parent or adult who can help.
Requests for sexual photos
With the increase in popularity of sexting, chances are high you will be asked to take and send a nude pic of yourself at some point. There’s a difference between consensual 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 predators asking for nudes, but any request for naked pictures will hopefully make you pause and consider the situation.
Titania Jordan put the issue in perspective:
“If you’re worried about someone liking you based on a photo that you may or may not send, chances are they’re not the right person for you.”
A relationship can get scary really quick if you start receiving threats. Perpetrators may threaten to forward a nude photo you previously sent to them to your parents or friends. They may say they will post it online and humiliate you unless you send more photos or videos.
You do not need to comply. Immediately get help from an adult and together you can take the steps to remove the perpetrator from your life.
The next steps
If something raises a red flag for you, the number one thing you should do may be the most challenging: Talk to a trusted adult.
We get it, it can be awkward and embarrassing to talk about. Maybe you’re worried about how your parents will react or you feel ashamed, like some part of the abuse is your fault. If you don’t remember anything else from this article, remember this: It is not your fault.
It is not your fault even if you initiated the conversation with the adult online. If you are a minor, you cannot legally consent to a relationship with an adult, so you are not at fault for where the conversation goes.
A perpetrator wants their abuse to be kept a secret. They are relying on you to feel so bad that you won’t talk to an adult who can help. Don’t give them the satisfaction. There’s support for you.
One way you can help is to capture evidence. Work with the adult you confide in to record usernames, document timestamps, and take screenshots, particularly on platforms where content disappears after being viewed. Together with your parent or guardian, you can report any abuse to law enforcement.
As we said from the beginning, technology and online communication have a lot to offer, but it’s still more than worth it to be careful.
“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 we 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.”