Internet Dangers During the COVID-19 Crisis
By Hannah Harrison
Your kids may not be as safe as you think they are.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents believe that their children, as long as they are indoors, are safe from the outside world. Unfortunately, during this stay-at-home season, many predators and children alike are spending more time online than outside. It’s crazy to think that in 2020, predators don’t have to leave home to ensnare children. During the COVID-19 pandemic, predators and traffickers are using the internet to catch America’s youth.
The world economy may have dramatically decreased. However, for predators lurking behind a computer screen, they aren’t missing a beat. During lockdowns and time kept away from friends, kids and teens will spend (even) more time on their phones, computers, iPads, video games, and anything else that holds an internet connection. While the internet, in general, is not a bad thing, it is dangerous to give children free rein to the world wide web.
On March 23, the FBI released a warning directed toward the heightened risk of child exploitation during the closure of schools amid the COVID-19 shutdown. “Due to school closings as a result of COVID-19, children will potentially have an increased online presence and/or be in a position that puts them at an inadvertent risk,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation acknowledged.
Predators have never been stupid. They know what will and will not gain a child’s trust. Even 20 years ago, predators typically built a relationship with the victim before they exploited the child. Today, that hasn’t changed. Only in our world, the internet and social media have made the challenge of building a relationship that much easier.
Often, these evil men and women pose as young children and begin to message the child on a direct message apps/comment section on an online post. After the relationship is established, the predator convinces the child to tell “secrets” or even send lewd photos. Upon sending messages like these, children quickly become ensnared as the predators and human traffickers hold these things against them as well as threatening to hurt the child’s family or self if they don’t comply with their demands.
As predators become aware of school closures and “distance learning” they immediately connect the dots that American minors are going to be spending more time online. Many predators who had jobs before the pandemic have been laid off, thus, creating more time for them to engage in elicit conduct. This, in turn, creates a smorgasbord of opportunities for them to reach into homes and ensnare unwary children.
It is important for families to recognize the evil that is being done through the internet and how it can affect any family in the U.S. Often, I hear parents say, “Well, this kind of thing could never happen to my child.” When in fact, there is no data to prove that it can’t. An un-monitored phone, social media account, or even app can change the life of any and every child.
Yet, there is always hope. By becoming aware of ways we can be involved in our children’s lives (during a pandemic), we are stopping predators before they can hurt another child. As summer approaches and (hopefully) the national shelter-in-place order ends, there are a few things you can do to make sure children are safe online. Becoming aware shows that we care. Let’s all use this time indoors to make sure our kids are safe from the outside world and the virtual one.
Talk about the hard stuff
Statistics show children are first exposed to pornography by the age of 11. However, there is no concrete data that prevents and/or proves that children younger than this aren’t exposed. And when children lack the understanding that what they are seeing is wrong and inappropriate they don’t know they should stop.
Early this year, Fight the New Drug conducted a survey that found “60% of students surveyed watched porn to learn more about sex and to fill in gaps in their sexual education.” Meanwhile, Google Analytics reported porn searches are 4700% higher when children are out of school. Meaning, whether, during lockdown or summer break, kids are vulnerable to viewing the hazardous material.
After predators build a relationship, they often begin to solicit the minor for pornography. If the child is unaware of the dangers of porn, often they comply. By having communication with children young and old, parents can raise awareness and build trust if the situation were to ever arise.
Monitor Online conversations
As a rule of thumb, I urge parents to not let children “friend” anyone that they don’t know in person. As mentioned earlier, often predators and human traffickers pose as someone they’re not and begin to start conversations with the child. Predators don’t think twice about direct messaging their targets.
The FBI explained that “Offenders may make casual contact with children online, gain their trust, and introduce sexual conversation that increases in egregiousness over time. Ultimately this activity may result in maintaining an online relationship that includes sexual conversation and the exchange of illicit images, to eventually physically meeting the child in-person.”
The conversations your child is having over any type of social media, video game, or direct messaging system should be monitored daily. But there are some methods and apps that can help monitor while the child still has privacy. Many cellular carriers have parental guidance plans to help you watch without being overbearing. Likewise, the app “Bark” has received the highest praise from multiple anti-trafficking organizations.
Limit time online
The best way to keep your child safe is to keep them offline.
At AFA, we value time with our families. I encourage parents to make this a priority now, and after the lockdown. Make memories with your kids by finding ways to be engaged without the constant buzz of media in the background. Simply by playing board games, reading together, watching movies as a family, getting outside, working out – you have the ultimate key to protecting kids from online dangers.
Everyone would love to believe that nothing could ever happen to a child. Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in. While your children are home, it is important to be extra vigilant and protect them from the dangers of the internet.
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” – (Isaiah 1:17).
Below are more resources to help with Internet safety.
Shared Hope international
National Center for Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE)