FBI Warns Of Increased Chance Of Online Exploitation Of Children During COVID-19
The FBI is urging parents and carers to closely monitor and remind their children about online safety during COVID-19 restrictions as well as the upcoming holidays. As the community spends more time indoors following the shutdown of all non-essential services, the FBI is warning that children are spending more time online than ever before, creating patterns of vulnerability with online predators.
“Our kids are just spending a lot more time online and unfortunately, the child predators out there know that as well. So they’re spending more time kind of trolling for children, trying to groom children online,” FBI Special Agent Robert Schwinger said.
“The message we try to get out is the same as always; be aware of what your children are doing online, what apps they have on their devices, how much time they’re spending online, who they’re talking to,” Schwinger said.
While there is no reason to panic, it has to be known that while we are in the midst of this pandemic, people are working from home, children are staying out of school, and doing activities on devices and on the internet. Online predators are aware of this, and they too are focusing their efforts on online platforms.
“Computer exploitation is anytime an adult tries to reach out to a minor via the internet, via computer, with the reason of using them or trying to gain some type of obscenity from them,” says Gossen. “I would encourage people to have their children when they want to [use] these devices, or the computer, have them in a common room -not in their bedroom or bathroom where they’re alone.”
Although online activities include getting access to educational material, it is vital that parents remain vigilant and monitor their child’s online usage. This includes keeping an eye on what websites they are visiting, and who they are communicating with.
“Check those apps, look for the chat feature,” Schwinger said. “A lot of those you can turn that off so they can just play the game and not chat. … Sometimes these people will be in the chatroom saying, ‘Hey I’ll send you this much in currency if you do something for me.’ So that’s something you really have to worry about.”
Children can be at risk or online abuse from both people they know as well as strangers. This might be part of other abuse that is occurring offline but is now heightened due to COVID-19 restrictions. Typically children and young adults experience different types of online abuse including cyberbullying, emotional abuse, grooming, sexting, sexual abuse or sexual exploitation.
“Online sexual exploitation comes in many forms,” FBI officials noted in a prepared statement. “Individuals may coerce victims into providing sexually explicit images or videos of themselves, often in compliance with offenders’ threats to post the images publicly or send (them) to victims’ friends and family.”
Some pedophiles “may make casual contact with children online, gain their trust and introduce sexual conversation that increases in egregiousness over time,” the agency cautioned. “Ultimately, this activity may result in (offenders’) maintaining an online relationship that includes sexual conversation and the exchange of illicit images, (and) eventually … meeting the child in person.”
Probably the worst danger is that the predator makes contact with a child in order to groom them for abuse. While said abuse can happen in a face-to-face meeting, it is increasingly happening online, tricking them or persuading them to take part in sexual activity via webcams or simply their cell phones.
“Recent statistics indicate that children are spending time online more than ever. This has developed a lot of room for online child exploitation. We have observed that there has been an increase of online grooming cases globally,” the IJM said, quoting Guillermo Galarza of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children based in Virginia, U.S.
Protecting Your Child’s Online Privacy
Follow these tips and help maintain your children’s online privacy.
1. Use Parental Controls
These software tools allow you to both monitor and limit what your child can see and do online. You can set them up to block your child from accessing particular sites, apps or even functions such as using a camera. There is also the ability to filter the type of content that you don’t want your child to have access to, such as that of adult or sexual nature.
Parental controls provide you with reports on which sites your children visit and for how long, as well as the apps they use. You can even set time limits for their online use, blocking their access after a certain period of time passes.
Although parental controls are effective tools that help you limit and control what your kids do online, it is imperative to know that they’re not foolproof. In reality, there is no substitute for active engagement and supervision of your child’s online activities.
2. Keep Devices in Open Areas of your Home
It is important to set device-free zones in your home in order to help you monitor who your child communicates with online. Establishing rules might mean you all come to the conclusion that there are no devices to be used in bedrooms or bathrooms.
Family members should also all switch their devices off at the dinner table, and all screens need to be off at least one hour prior to bedtime. Also, make sure to charge all devices overnight somewhere that cannot be accessed by your child.
Obviously it’s impossible to keep an eye on your child 24/7, however, establishing rules around the home to keep technology and devices in open areas of your home will limit the risk of their being groomed into taking illegal and compromising images of themselves.
3. Set Time Limits
Although your children will be online more than ever right now, using online platforms for schoolwork it is vital to ensure a healthy balance between those and non-school related online activities.
During their free time, they should have time limits as to how long they can spend online. For example, they can play their favorite games online as soon as they have eaten their dinner and completed their homework. Instead of simply letting them know about these rules, be sure to speak to them as to why they are so important.
Also, make sure to be a positive role model for your child, and reduce your own screen time now that you are spending extra time at home.
4. Know Which Apps and Games Your Children are Using
Make sure to scope out which apps your children are using on a regular basis and see whether they’re age-appropriate.
Be sure to look for any messaging abilities or location sharing within apps, games, and social media accounts. They can expose your young ones to unwanted contact or even reveal their physical location. There are often options to turn these features off.
5. Check Privacy Settings
In order to protect the online privacy of your whole family, you need to check the privacy settings ensuring that all accounts and apps have the strictest privacy settings activated. Restricting who is able to contact your child, and making sure that it’s friends-only will limit any unwanted contact.
It is incredibly important to communicate with your child about who they accept to their friend’s list. Predators are known to befriend a number of students from the same school so they can gain a group’s trust.
6. Discuss Posting Private Information
Predators typically stalk children via online platforms, often taking advantage of their innocence, as well as the lack of adult supervision. They will be on the lookout for any personal information like personal moments, contact information or even family vacation plans.
Speaking to your children about the importance of keeping information private is essential in protecting their online safety. Also, remember to discuss the importance of not clicking on any links or random texts that they receive as they are likely to be phishing attempts. These links will be tailored to the latest crazes that young adults enjoy.
The FBI recommends the following when it comes to child abuse awareness:
- “Teach your children about body safety and boundaries.
- Encourage your children to have open communication with you.
- Be mindful of who is watching your child for childcare/babysitting, playdates, and overnight visits.
- If your child discloses abuse, immediately contact local law enforcement for assistance.
- Children experiencing hands-on abuse may exhibit withdrawn behavior, angry outbursts, anxiety, depression, not wanting to be left alone with a specific individual, non-age appropriate sexual knowledge, and an increase in nightmares.”
While staying home from school might have its own challenges in terms of keeping up with schoolwork from home, there are other crucial matters that parents and caregivers need to keep in mind. Online predators are everywhere from social to gaming platforms, and this is set to increase as social distancing measures continue.
Be sure to communicate with your children the importance of protecting their privacy online and how to keep safe during this time.