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Effective Ways to Protect Children from Online Predators

Through open-minded, casual, and consistent conversations about the internet and social media, GDBA’s online security expert, Brian Creter, offers parents realistic and effective methods for protecting their children from online predators.

Zachary’s Story

Two years ago, a 16-year-old boy (who I will call Zachary) posted a seemingly innocent “whisper” on the app, Whisper, asking how girls could better notice him at school. He soon began chatting privately with a user named Malorie, who had responded to his inquiry. Over the next few weeks, Zachary and Malorie exchanged daily messages and photographs over Snapchat. One night, to prove that he liked her, Malorie demanded Zachary send a naked photograph of himself. The moment Zachary sent that nude photo, the predator named “Malorie” gained control.

Because Zachary’s parents had recently revoked his phone privileges due to visiting inappropriate websites, he was reluctant to tell his parents about any inappropriate online communications. As a result, over the next two years (and up until a few months ago) this predator extorted (or “Sextorted”*) Zachary into sharing hundreds of explicit photographs of himself. If Zachary refused, the predator threatened to share the existing nude photos with Zachary’s parents and friends.

After a while, Zachary’s grades dropped, and soon after, he quit Lacrosse – a sport he had played for years. Depressed and feeling trapped, Zachary finally confided about the predator to his therapist, and eventually, his parents. Zachary’s parents then filed a police report. To this day, the predator has not been identified.

Zachary’s parents felt horrible that their own son was reluctant to ask for their help, and looking back, as they explained to me, they wished they had been more open-minded and direct in discussing the internet and social media with Zachary.

Over the past few years, our threat assessment and investigative divisions have provided advice and performed work on several similar cases involving young children (as young as 11 years old) who have been victims of Sextortion* and online predators. Here is one of the many ways we advise our clients about their children’s online safety and security.

What Can Parents Do?

For more than a decade, I have advised clients about online safety. When discussing these matters with concerned parents, I learn they often try to convince their children that the Internet, especially social media, is a dark and dangerous place filled with predators, bullies, and extorters lurking in the web’s dark corners.

Other parents I have met, instead of using fear-based tactics about the internet, seek to protect their children by attempting to monitor every online move their child makes. Though monitoring can be effective (for certain ages), kids will often find ways to hide activities from their parents.

So instead of condemning the internet altogether or attempting to watch every online move their child makes, I recommend parents protect their kids through open communication and education.

My Recommendation: Communication and Education

  • Short, Consistent, and Casual Conversations. The Journal of the American Medical Association recommends addressing Sextortion and Sexting early on with teens (or pre-teens) when they first receive smart phones. Having several small talks over time, rather than one big discussion, will remind kids about the darker realities of their online world. Moreover, these small talks will empower kids to make good decisions and avoid embarrassment – something teenagers often fear most.
  • Open-Minded Discussions. During these discussions, it is important for parents to show love and support, rather than threatening punishment for breaking their rules. When advising our firm’s clients on this subject, I encourage them to talk with their kids regularly and openly about their online actions, and to do so without judgement.

Rather than surreptitiously search their kids phones for inappropriate search histories or undesirable apps, I urge clients to casually ask their kids without judgement about the apps they  use and websites they frequent — and whom they are communicating with. Being an active resource for their child, without accosting them, will help parents avoid the silence Zachary’s parents experienced for two years.

  • Discuss Real Stories. Referencing real life examples in the news is another way I recommend parents educate their children. These examples illustrate the humiliating consequences teenagers want to avoid, while offering lessons on how to avoid such depressing repercussions – like those experienced by Zachary.
  • Third-Party Discussions. I often urge parents to organize age-appropriate talks from community leaders, like local law enforcement and previous online victims, as a way for their teens to hear from another reliable source.
  • Familiarization. I recommend parents test the apps their children are using to understand any risks and dangers associated. This will help avoid parental overreaction and the parental urge to inspect their child’s apps, which can cause distrust and cease open communication.

Through open-minded, casual, and consistent conversations, parents can help their children avoid the dark storm clouds of online predators and remain comfortable enough to notify their parents whenever those storm clouds get too close.

*The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that 78 percent of reported victims of Sextortion are girls, with an average age of 15 years old. Similar to sexual assaults, Sextortion often goes unreported, due to perceived embarrassment and other factors. Moreover, this Department of Justice study in 2015 reviewed 43 cases of Sextortion involving children and found that two victims committed suicide, at least ten attempted suicide, and many reported depression, cutting, and other forms of self-harm. The study also found that offenders sought out children they considered “easy targets” because of their willingness to post personal content online and engage in live-streaming video.

Brian Creter is the Vice President of Investigations at GDBA, where he manages our firm’s most sensitive and complex investigations, including confidential investigations related to public figure pursuit, extortion, and theft. For over a decade, Brian has advised at‐risk public figures on their online activity, and taught open source intelligence techniques to key influencers within numerous government agencies and Fortune 500 corporations.

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