How do you protect children from online predators?

Emma McGowan 14 Jun 2021

Platforms on which strangers can make contact can potentially be used for online grooming of children, especially if the platform is one that parents don't understand themselves

Online grooming of children by sexual predators is a topic that people hate to think — much less talk — about. For a parent, the idea of an invisible predator lurking in the places their children are supposed to be safe can feel terrifying to the point of overwhelming. But in order to keep kids safe online, it’s essential that parents start explaining online grooming early and repeating the conversation often.

Psychotherapist and author Catherine Knibbs — who works with clients who have experienced trauma online — fears that online grooming of children is more common than most people think. In her practice, she has seen kids as young as under the age of 10 who have been groomed and exploited online. The long-lasting effects, she tells Avast, are “the same as if they were physically abused.”

Knibbs says that any platform where strangers can make contact has the potential to be used for online grooming of children, especially if the platform is one that parents don’t use or understand themselves. 

“Discord, for example,” Knibbs says. “It’s a fantastic app — I’m not blaming Discord. But because it’s a place where files can be shared, a perpetrator will likely share an image with the child and ask for an image back.”

Additionally, Knibbs says, children can be quickly moved from one platform to another if it’s in the predator’s interest. For example, if a child is playing PS4 without filters, an adult could come in and mention another platform that’s “cooler.” Younger children may be quicker to download and access that platform because they’re told that it’s “cool,” moving them away from the familiar and supportive community on the parent-approved platform.

But while the prospect of a child being groomed online is horrifying, there are steps parents can take to protect their children. Keep reading for professional advice from Knibbs about how to protect children from online sexual predators. 

What is online grooming of children?

Before we dive into tips, let’s talk about the basics: What is online grooming of children?

“Online grooming is the purposeful intent by a perpetrator of crimes against children to elicit, exploit, and interact with a child under the age of 16 for sexual purposes and monetary gain,” Knibbs says. “ There is befriending; there is preparation. But sometimes that preparation can be as quick as ‘You’ve got a lovely face. I wonder what’s under that jumper.’”

While that may sound abrupt, Knibbs says that many online predators are that abrupt in their approach. Predators target children with a scattershot approach, similar to online marketing callers. They’re looking for the child that will respond quickly, even if it’s in the negative, because that opens the door for conversation.

According to Knibbs, many people are still applying the Finkelhor model of child sexual abuse grooming to online grooming, which relies on four preconditions for child sexual abuse: (1) an offender with a predisposition to sexually abuse a child; (2) the ability overcome any internal inhibitions against acting on that predisposition; (3) the ability to overcome external barriers, such as lack of access to the child or supervision of the child by others; and (4) the ability to overcome any resistance or reluctance on the part of the child. And while that process can take a long time in person, online grooming and exploitation can occur in a matter of minutes.

“They’re not wasting time, because they don’t have to make a number of visits to the house in order to become a trusted person in and around that child’s life,” Knibbs says. “Once the child is engaged in doing something that might not necessarily be illegal or sexual, they’re told that it’s sexual.” 

For example, a girl might be on a video chat and told to do something that’s not necessarily an illegal or sexual action, but the predator tells her that it was “rude” and that he’s going to tell her parents. He then uses that action to blackmail her into doing other, increasingly sexual, things.

“Grooming always involves a level of buying into the child’s fear," Knibbs says. “Younger children are frightened of getting into trouble. Older children are worried about peers finding out, as well as parents.”

Knibbs says the methods used are similar to other cyber crimes, like cat fishing, scamming, and phishing. 

“It’s social engineering, but with a much more macabre outcome,” she explains. “This is not somebody trying to get a child’s bank details. It’s someone trying to get images that can be traded with other perpetrators.”

How do you talk to kids about online grooming?

When it comes to talking to kids about online grooming, there are no silver bullets. And there are no “one and done” conversations or methods that will effectively protect them for their entire childhood. Instead, expect to have multiple talks about online safety over the course of your kid’s childhood. To start the critical thinking skills, teach your kid how to ask questions.

“Rather than saying ‘there are bad people out there online,’” Knibbs previously told Avast. “Say something like, ‘Who are friends online? How do you know they’re a friend and not just someone you talk to? How do you know it’s a genuine person?’”

It’s also important to remember that a child’s mind doesn’t make the same connections that an adult’s mind can. For example, Knibbs says, it’s a good idea to ask a kid under the age of 12, “How do you know who you’re talking to on Discord?”. Keep in mind that in this case, it’s possible that they’re going to think that the resulting conversation only applies to Discord. 

That’s because children don’t generalize,” Knibbs says. "It’s just not in their cognitive remit to do so.”

With that in mind, Knibbs suggests that children who are under the age of 13 — and who therefore aren’t able to think critically yet — not be left alone with devices. It can be a hard rule to reinforce, especially if older siblings or friends have devices, but establishing that rule in combination with teaching critical thinking skills can help combat online grooming. 

Finally, ask your kid about their life online — every day.

“I know that the 50th time that day you hear about the new Minecraft server and Obsidian block, you don’t want to hear it,” Knibbs says. “But it’s the same as them talking about what’s going on at school. We take a vested interest in what’s going on at school because we’re curious and we need to do the same thing with the digital space, because it’s much bigger than the playground.”

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