7 Tactics Used By Online Predators
Help your kids recognize the 7 strategies used by online predators.
We all want to believe we live that our home is a safe place, a refuge from the chaos and danger that we hear about in the news or see portrayed in movies. A sanctuary. And hopefully, for most of us, this can be the truth.
But we can’t risk letting our guard down entirely, not when the internet, apps, and smartphones are able to bring the ugly parts of the world into the haven of our homes. We can’t afford to wrongly conclude that everything is dandy if we are actually failing to see how close the dangers really are. And they are frighteningly close.
In 2020, an estimated 5 million interactions took place between predators and children. 5,000,000 interactions in 1 year. That same year, the Cyber Tipline of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children received nearly 22 million reports. By FBI and other law enforcement estimates, there are as many as 500,000 predators lurking online in the U.S, each contacting an average of 52 different contacts they are trying to exploit. And 12-14% of kids from different surveys report having met face-to-face with someone they met on the internet. Those numbers are terrifying.
In the Raise App, you’ll hear us talk over and over about the importance of your relationship with your children. That’s because no other factor is as important in keeping them safe. It is worrying that, even as technology makes children more vulnerable to online predators, the majority of kids do not disclose to parents what they are really experiencing online. Results from one major study found that 70% of teens hide online activity from their parents. That number is up from 45% in 2010. While we can’t always prevent our kids from encountering bad people or bad things online, we can build a trusting and caring relationship with them. We can help prepare them so that they know how to respond. In this case, we can teach them seven signals that someone may be an online predator.
In a game of chess, a gambit is a risky opening move that is used to try and gain an advantage. Predators start their twisted game with a process called grooming. Grooming is a slow, methodical process used by a predator to build a relationship of trust with a child, and sometimes the family, with an intention of sexually exploiting the child. According to The Demand Project, predators commonly work to convince the child that they love them, while using sexual innuendos intended to desensitize and lower the child’s inhibitions.
Both parents and children need to know the tactics of online predators so that their exploitative gambits fail. While it is always better to only communicate online with people that you know and trust in person, we’ve created the acronym GAMBITS to help parents and children recognize the strategies of online predators. Any one of these signs is cause for concern, but when more than one shows up, it is especially suspect.
When someone is older than your child and doesn’t have a legitimate reason to be contacting them, your kid’s inner alarm system should go off. There just aren’t many good reasons for non-related adults to be private messaging children or teens. This is in part why dating apps all have age limits. Even though it’s easy to lie about age online (to lie about lots of things, really), a surprising number of predators make no effort to conceal their true age. Some teens might actually be flattered by the attention of someone older and “more mature.”
Help your children understand that being older doesn’t automatically mean being mature. And if they want to know how big of an age gap is too big, a good rule of thumb is to flip the direction. For a 15-year-old, being messaged by a 21-year-old might be kind of exciting. But if you flip the difference and ask whether the 15-year-old would reach out to flirt with a 9-year-old, the answer is usually “Ew. No way!”
Everyone wants to feel special and to feel loved. Predators exploit that natural desire by expressing excessive affection early on and frequently. Help your children understand that love takes time to grow roots and flourish in a healthy relationship. If someone they meet online is saying things like “I love you” when they don’t really know each other, that is a clear signal that something isn’t right.
Since the big goal of predators goal is to get sex, it makes sense that they will ask to meet up in person. In addition to the red flag of requests to meet, teach your kids to be suspicious of related questions, like if someone asks where they live, if they’re home alone, when they will be alone or what their parents’ work schedules are. These are all warning signals. Again, remind your children that life and the internet are safer when they only talk online with people they know in real life and that they certainly shouldn’t meet up alone with someone that they’ve only spoken with online!
Your kids should know that predators try to turn conversations to focus on the body. This can include repeated compliments on how they look, specific comments on body parts, asking about clothes they’re wearing, and even explicit offers to “teach” them about things like kissing and sex. Your children will be safer when they know that real love is about way more than the body—it’s about knowing hopes, dreams, fears, thoughts, and opinions. It means knowing another person in their entirety. So they should be concerned if someone’s focus online turns to the body, even if they started with normal questions.
Predators will ask for pictures, often as a precursor to asking to meet in person. They will say things like, “I just want to see more of you.” or “You’re so beautiful.” With time, predators will get more and more sexual in their requests. They will sometimes first send explicit photos themselves, without asking permission. These could include images of them in their underwear or getting into the shower. If a child or teen does send a sexual picture to a predator, it can be used as blackmail. The predator will threaten to send the picture to parents or publish it online if their quarry doesn’t keep doing what they say.
Help your kids to understand the risks of sending inappropriate pictures of themselves. And also help them to know that, even if they make a mistake, it is always better to come and talk to you about it, so you can figure it out together.
Sending small gifts like gift cards, clothes, or other trinkets is another trick that predators use to try and make their targets feel special. Your kids need to know that these gestures could actually be romantic if they were from someone sincere and at the right time in their life. But they also need to know that manipulation is not romantic and that predators are using the exact same gestures to try and exploit multiple people at the same time.
Predators know what they’re doing is wrong and illegal. Of course they want to keep from being caught, and so they need secrecy. There are a lot of app features that predators love, like disappearing messages, private messaging, location sharing, hidden identities, and so on. Help your children realize why someone asking or telling them to keep a conversation hidden from you, their parents, is a warning sign.
As you and your children have multiple conversations about the gambits used by online predators, they can be prepared to recognize and avoid the digital traps that can cause such harm. As a family team, you can feel safe and confident at home, not because there’s nothing threatening out there, but because you are aware and proactive about protecting yourselves.