Advancements in technology and social media’s widespread accessibility has proven harmful to underage children.
By: Carlee Gettman
Prior to the rise of social media, child predators would physically stalk vulnerable youth at highly populated sites like playgrounds, schools, malls and even their own neighborhoods. Fast forward a few years and the evolution of technology and social media platforms have birthed a new breed of child predators. They are now more obscure and incognito than ever before. These individuals possess the power to stalk and lurk children through a few clicks on their screens, often doing so, disguised as someone else.
The innumerable amount of cases involving adult predators who target underage children online is quickly approaching an all-time high across the world. In 2019, sixteen New Jersey men were arrested in a statewide operation labeled, “Operation Home Alone.”
The crackdown on child exploitation–led by multiple state law enforcement agencies–concerned undercover investigators posing as children on social media sites. Investigators were conducting entire conversations with these predators gathering enough evidence, in a short amount of time, to go in for the arrest. The officers stated they were underage, and the men went forward with arrangements to meet the “children” in person for sex.
The sixteen men included a Ridgewood, New Jersey, police officer, a high school teacher at the High School of Computers and Technology in the Bronx, New York, a traveling minister and various drivers for Uber and Lyft. The men, ages between 28 to 55, were charged with luring and attempted sexual assault for the utilization of popular social media platforms to identify and groom adolescents for assault.
According to prosecutors, the predators used social media websites, chat apps and gaming apps including Kik, Skout, Grindr, Tinder, MeetMe, Adam4Adam, Fortnite, Minecraft and Hot or Not to target underage children.
Unfortunately, this is only one of many related cases in the United States. In just the past five months, three Mississippi men were arrested for luring children through social media websites, three Arkansas men were arrested under a similar sting operation on social platforms, a California man was sentenced to seven years in prison for luring children online and two New Jersey men were sentenced for attempted luring on social media. These predators are only a small detected sample of those present on social media; many continue lurking untraced.
Social media sites have become such an essential part of everyday life and are commonly mistaken as a harmless place of security, but in reality, there is a dark truth to those who abuse the anonymity granted by these platforms. These advancements have added a difficult chapter into the parenting handbook. Parents are now left to worry and ponder: how can I virtually protect my children?
“I not only have to worry about predators targeting my kids while they are outside playing with their friends, but now I have to worry about those same predators targeting my children while playing video games or through phone apps in the comfort of their own home,” said Breanne Beals, 36-year-old Las Vegas mother of two. “All I want to do is protect them and assure they have a childhood full of fun and good memories.”
Breanne is no stranger to growing up with social media and the internet. Throughout her own childhood, she had unlimited access to the internet and social platforms like Myspace and Facebook. But in the early stages of social media, predators weren’t as undetectable and present as they are now. “Growing up with social media websites has given me an advantage compared to parents that didn’t,” told Breanne. “I know how they operate and what really goes on online.”
Breanne’s kids have reached the age where she believes it is appropriate for them to have cellphones and access to the internet. She emphasized her feelings that many parents are uneducated in the subject of social media, and the first step to stopping these predators is to educate yourself and then your children. Parents are left with no choice but to dive headfirst into the unknown to assure their child’s safety. Breanne began by asking herself, how are predators utilizing social media to approach our youth?
According to a study by The University of Toledo Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute, technology has allowed traffickers to exploit children without meeting face-to-face. The study cites 58 percent of victims eventually meet their traffickers face to face, and 42 percent who initially met their trafficker online never met their trafficker in person and were still trafficked.
Experts claim that traffickers begin by studying what their targeted victim posts before they attempt their initial approach. To counterattack this, it is recommended that children place all of their account settings to private and consult with their parents before accepting a friend request. When predators have access to their victim’s content, they are able to pretend to understand the victim and create a relationship of trust that is secretly built upon falsehood.
Predators that can view a child’s publicly posted content, seek out which adolescent appears to be the most vulnerable and proceed by pretending to comfort them. Experts from the UT study claim that instances of social media posts that attract a trafficker’s attention generally involve signs of disappointment, emptiness and fear, including:
- “Nobody gets me.”
- “I am so ugly.”
- “How do I look?”
- “My life sucks.”
- “My parents don’t trust me.”
- “I need to get out of here.”
- “I am treated like a kid.”
Such traffickers are searching for any hint of trouble within the home, substance abuse or conflict between parent-and-child. Predators identify this behavior and seek the opportunity to step-in as the child’s mentor by giving them a false sense of security and protection. They utilize phrases of encouragement, such as: “I’ll help”, “I’ll protect”, “I understand” and “I’ll encourage”. This is how they manipulate adolescents and begin the process of grooming them for sex trafficking.
Breanne referenced this study when educating her own children, “It is important to show them real-life examples, so they are thoroughly educated,” she said. “The most essential step to educating your children is creating a safe space for an open and non-judgmental conversation. Just let them know you are there for them and there are ways to avoid these problems.”
She recommends creating a transparency rule with your children, until they are responsible enough to fully understand the dangers of social media. By doing so, parents can attack this problem and assure their home is that safe place children desperately need. Remaining involved in all aspects of children’s lives, online and offline, and regularly monitoring their social platform accounts will help parents stay informed. There are also various organizations collaborating to help fight “the new drug” and protect the youth.
One group, The Polaris Project, has formed an entire operation to assist parents and victims through social media trafficking. The company focuses on sharing victims’ stories, informing parents and children about how social media recruitment occurs, how to protect your children or yourself from predators online and the operation of a hotline for victims to escape current social media trafficking situations.