Strangers and Predators Online

In Brief

Kids can easily encounter predators online; and predators know the places kids hang out online and how to develop online relationships with them. In this section, we cover the patterns typical of online predators, the likely places where kids can encounter them, how you can minimize the risks of your child becoming a victim, and how to respond if you sense that your child is being targeted by an online predator.

Overview

Chances are that your child will never be the victim of an online predator.  However, that doesn't mean that you or your kids should be naive.  You and your kids need to be smart about the reality today. 

We live in a networked, social world.  Therefore the "places" where kids can encounter strangers online is becoming increasingly complex.  Online services and technologies are often "faceless".  It's this online "anonymity" that makes technology an attractive vehicle for predators. 

It can be easy for kids to build relationships and develop trust with those they talk with online.  Predators know this.  They will use that anonymity to pretend to be something or someone that they aren't just to develop relationships with kids. 

Hopefully you've already talked with your kids about the dangers of strangers.  However, no matter how much you think you've talked about the topic of strangers and predators with your kids, the reality is that kids are oftentimes naive and can be duped by bad people who use social engineering tricks.  As part of your parenting toolkit, you need to know how online predators work, the places where kids can potentially meet strangers online, and what to do if you feel that your child is being targeted. 

Patterns of Online Predators

Online predators tend to follow certain behavioral patterns to find kids.  As parents, you need to know some of these tendencies.  In general, online predators will tend to:

  1. Find places where kids are.  With today's technology, this means social networks, chat rooms, blogs, email, message boards and forums, IM, and any place where they can interact with kids.
  2. Search Profiles.  Kids profiles on social network sites often include photos of themselves, their gender, age, and where they live.  Kids who make it a point to provide detailed profiles are providing predators with the information they are looking for.
  3. Seduce.  Online predators will try to get attention, sympathy, and affection from kids.  It's not uncommon for targeted kids to even receive physical gifts as part of this.
  4. Learn about kids' interests.  Predators will know about the latest movies, music, viral videos, hobbies, and other things that kids will be interested in.
  5. Be their Friend.  It may seem odd, but predators will make an effort to listen and sympathize with problems and issues that kids may be dealing with.
  6. Gradually build to sexual content.  Predators will gradually introduce sexual conversations, photos, and videos to try and break down kids' inhibitions.
  7. Evaluate.  Using the mechanisms above, online predators will often start to evaluate which kids they will attempt to meet in person.

Places where kids can meet strangers online

There are some "places" in the digital world where kids are more likely to come into contact with strangers and predators.  The online services parents need to be most careful with are chat rooms, message boards and forums, social networking sites, instant messaging, and email.  These aren't the only services, however. 

Mobile phone and computer apps and games have multiplayer capabilities over the Internet.  It's easy and common for kids to invite a complete stranger to be an opponent (or on the same team) with them.  Networked apps and games oftentimes have chat rooms and other features that predators could use.  Therefore, don't assume that the seemingly innocent game that you allow your child to play isn't also capable of connecting your kids to complete strangers.

How to minimize the Risk to your Kids

There are a number of proactive steps to take with your kids.  We suggest you think about the following in your family:

  • Talk to your kids about online strangers and predators.  It's a very scary topic, but don't ignore pretend that online dangers are non-existent.  When you talk to your kids about strangers make sure they understand that strangers exist both in the real world and the online world.
  • Secure your devices and home network with parental controls.  Use parental control solutions for computers, mobile phones, and other devices.  Use OpenDNS on your home network.  Refer to the parental control section in this guide for more detailed information.
  • Don't bypass age limits on sites.  It's not a mistake if you don't see your child's age listed.  Most social networks and chat sites do not allow kids under 13 to join.  Never bypass a site's age restrictions as you are also bypassing age-specific protection features.  If your kid isn't of age to use a certain site, then they shouldn't use it.  Parents should never help their children create accounts if they are not of age.
  • Don't allow young kids to use chat rooms and message boards.  When kids are older and they are interacting with others online, monitor what they are doing, what they are talking about, and who they are talking with.  Make sure you know what message boards, social networks, groups, and chat rooms your kids are involved with. 
  • Kids should use public chat rooms and message boards.  Kids should not be engaging in private, one-on-one conversations online in private chat rooms that cannot be monitored.
  • Keep and use computers and Internet-enabled devices in a public area.  This simple yet powerful step helps you know and monitor what's happening in your family's digital world.  It's more difficult for your child to talk to a stranger online if the computer, gaming device, or mobile phone is used in a public space in your home.  Guide them by making it a habit to be with your child when they are online.  If your kids are using computers outside of your home, such as at the library, school, or a friend's home, find out what parental controls are on those computers and how they are being monitored.
  • Be smart with email.  Young kids should be using kid-friendly email services that allow parents to monitor and approve emails.  Young kids should not have their own email accounts through the major email services.  Some parents setup family email accounts that they monitor. 
  • Don't respond to strangers.  Teach kids that they should never respond to instant messages, txt messages, "friend requests" on social networks, or emails from strangers.  In fact, they should tell you immediately if they receive any communication from someone they don't know.
  • Act quickly; but act with love.  Even if you were to follow every possible precaution, your child still might become the target of a predator.  Love your child.  Don't blame them.  Predators are the ones actively seeking out kids and predators are always the ones responsible.   Above all, act quickly.  Follow the steps outlined below if you think your child is being targeted.

Tips kids should know to avoid predators and strangers

Kids should have the right smarts when it comes to avoiding predators and strangers online.  Here are some general tips that all kids should know:

  • Kids need to be able to talk to a trusted adult.  Preferably, it should be you.  Cultivate that loving relationship and safe environment with your kids.  However, sometimes kids might not feel comfortable coming to you.  Therefore, let them know its OK to approach their parish priest, school counselor, or teacher. 
  • Kids should tell you, their parish priest, or another adult immediately if they see anything online that makes them feel uncomfortable or frightened.
  • Kids should never use screen names that reveal their gender, personal information or contain sexually suggestive words. 
  • Kids should never reveal their age, gender, or personal information about their family to anyone online or in online profiles.  If they need to enter any information to create an account, then that information should be restricted and private so that no one else can see it.
  • Kids should immediately tell their parents, priest, or another adult if anyone online starts to ask for their personal information or becomes sexually suggestive.  All online communication with that person should stop immediately.
  • Kids need to know that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.  Kids need to keep their smarts about them and not be duped by social engineering tricks others may use on them.

What to do if you feel your child is being targeted

Thinking that your child is being targeted by a predator can be absolutely terrifying.  However, there are recommended steps to take if you feel that this is, in fact, the case:

  • Contact law enforcement.  Local law enforcement is trained to deal with online predators.  Do not delay in contacting them and do not be afraid to contact them.  Local law enforcement is there to support you and your family in situations involving online predators.
  • Monitor communications: Monitor digital communications in chat rooms, instant messaging, social networks, email, etc. using some of the tools and services listed in this guide.
  • Check devices for sexually-themed communication.  Check computers, smart phones, and gaming devices for pornographic files or sexual communication.  These tend to be warning signs.
  • Save Evidence.  If your child receives sexually explicit photos/videos or is being sexually solicited through email, social media, instant messaging, or any other means, then save that evidence.  Pass that evidence onto local law enforcement immediately.

Additional Resources to Protect Against Online Predators

A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety:
http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/parent-guide

Microsoft's Family Safety Center:
http://www.microsoft.com/security/family-safety/predators.aspx

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