In late May, 2018, police in Sarasota County, Florida arrested 21 adult men on charges stemming from their intent to have sex with teenage boys and girls. A story in the Bradenton Herald details the outcome of Operation Intercept V, a police sting mounted by Sarasota County police to “protect children in Sarasota County from online predators.”
The operation resulted in over 60 felony charges brought against men between the ages of 22 and 58 years old. The alleged predators answered various online ads and social media posts, which were, unbeknownst to the alleged predators, ads and posts created by police. All the men arrested had “sexually explicit conversations” with undercover detectives who they thought were minors between 12 and 14 years old.
In a day and age when every move an individual makes online leaves a digital footprint, it’s hard to imagine sexual predators still use the internet to identify, pursue, and arrange meetings with minors for the purposes of illegal sexual activity. But it still happens, all over the country.
Each of the 21 adult men in Florida thought they were going to have sex with a minor.
Instead, they got arrested.
Online Predators: The Facts and Statistics
Behind the headlines, there’s actually encouraging news with regard to online sexual predators. Don’t misunderstand us: this is a very real problem that every parent in the country needs to take seriously. To understand the problem in more detail, we consulted the most reliable, practical, and no-nonsense website for information about online activity for youth in America – Common Sense Media. We hoped to find facts, figures, and a dose of perspective.
That’s exactly what we found.
First, some encouraging facts that may surprise you:
- Between 2000 and 2010, unwanted sexual solicitation of minors decreased by 53%
- As of 2010, 9% of kids who use the internet received unwanted sexual solicitation. For the record, our position is that any percent above zero is far too high. We include this stat to mitigate the effect sensationalist journalism, and reduce panic created by fear rather than fact.
- Peers are more likely to solicit sexually explicit material than adults.
Now, facts about where kids and teens come into contact with online predators:
- Chat rooms
- Social Media
- Chat features in online, multiplayer games such as:
- Clash of Clans
- World of Warcraft
- Any app or website that requires no age verification and allows unrestricted contact between users of the app or site.
Note: most online games have built-in protections against online adult predators. They are imperfect, but according to Common Sense Media, they do help.
Next, facts about which teens are most at-risk of being the victims of online predators:
- Kids between ages 12 and 15 appear to be the most at-risk, with girls being more frequent victims than boys.
- Predators will target kids who talk about sex, post sexually explicit photos, or discuss sexual abuse or trauma online
- After girls, boys who openly question their sexual identity are the second-most targeted group.
Now for the shockers:
- Teens will egg each other on, often daring peers to engage in inappropriate sexual talk online. Some see it as a game.
- Some teens feel important, grown up, and attractive as a result of the sexual attention they get from adults online. In a dangerous wrinkle of the healthy developmental phenomenon of differentiation, i.e. establishing an identity independent of their parents, teenagers will often keep this contact a secret.
- More often than not, teens willingly participate in relationships with predators. This particular fact is hard to hear, but true. The teens who do this almost always keep it a secret from their parents.
Many teens become secretive and withdrawn from their parents during adolescence. It’s a natural part of their development. They want to search, learn, and experience the world on their own, without the mediating influence of their parents. Everything they keep a secret is not sinister. On the other hand, with regards to online behavior, there are certain things parents should watch for.
Red Flags: Behaviors That Merit Increased Scrutiny
Here are three things that might indicate your teen is engaging in risky online behavior:
- Becoming secretive and furtive with a device:
- Hiding the screen
- Clicking out of windows when you show up
- Changing passwords from those you set
- Phone calls, texts, and emails from people you don’t know
- Finding pornographic images on their phone or computer
- Finding porn sites, adult chat rooms, or other questionable sites in their browser history
If you encounter any of these red flags, the best thing to do is stay calm and gather evidence. Common Sense Media advises you to take the following steps:
- Save emails, and suspicious IMs, and text messages.
- Block the person sending the suspicious messages
- Use the reporting features of the website, app, or game where you find the suspicious material. Report the questionable behavior to the administrators.
- Contact the police. This may seem extreme, but contacting police can result in outcome mentioned at the beginning of this article: predators in jail.
Talk About Online Safety With Your Kids
This should happen before you let your kids go online for the first time. It’s the most important thing you can do, so we saved it for last. Kids need to know there are people out there who do not have their best interest in mind. People who will say and do virtually anything to get them to come meet IRL – that’s In Real Life for parents who are clueless about text shorthand. For a comprehensive list of online safety rules to review with your kids, please click this link to read the information provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Obviously, the FBI is the real deal, and whatever they have to say on the matter is important.
That FBI list is a lot to take in. It’s for you. Here’s a shortened list, provided Cyberwise, that contains the five most important things you can do to keep your child safe from online predators.
Five Tips for Avoiding Online Predators
- Tell them they should never, ever, under any circumstances, give out any personal information at all to anyone online. Not their name, age, location, likes dislikes, or anything. None means none. Nothing, zip, nada.
- Tell them they should never post any pictures online without your permission. Again: never, ever.
- Never allow your children to use an unsupervised device. Set parental controls, parental tracking, and take advantage of any filters, blocks, and controls available. After your child uses a device, review their history for questionable activity.
- Tell them that if anyone they meet online asks them to keep their online activity a secret, that’s a red flag. Your kids should do the opposite: tell you immediately.
- Tell them to never, ever agree to meet someone they meet online IRL. Also tell them that if anyone asks them to meet offline, they should come to you immediately.
We started this article with a frightening story about online predators operating in Florida. Fortunately, those people were caught, and the criminal justice system will run its course. The media makes the online predator phenomenon seem more prevalent than it is, because those stories garner quick attention and get lots of clicks. The reality: it’s not as common as the media makes it seem, but it is a real threat to the safety of your child. With education, common sense, and proactive parenting, you can keep your child or teen from becoming lured by an online predator. It all starts before they get online for the first time: it’s the 21st century version of “The Talk,” with one difference: it’s not nearly as embarrassing for you or your kids.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.