The FBI says there could be an increased risk for child exploitation during the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s because predators have more opportunities to target children who are on computers more than usual as schools move to online learning.
“Obviously, we're not worried about the site setup by the schools, but it’s putting kids on the internet probably more than they would be if they were going to school during the day. Once they’ve finished their schoolwork, obviously they're home all day. Most kids aren't visiting each other and playing with other kids. And judging by my kids, they’re going to want to be on their devices more,” explained Robert Schwinger, a special agent with the FBI Jacksonville Violent Crimes Against Children Squad.
“We just think that child predators that are out there are aware of this also and rather than being online just in the evenings when kids are home, they probably now understand that there are children on the internet all day,” he said.
Online sexual exploitation can take many forms: predators may try to get victims to send them sexually explicit images or videos of themselves or they might make casual contact with children and gain their trust before introducing sexual themes to conversations. These types of interactions could lead to the predator trying to meet the child in person.
In most cases, this kind of victimization won’t stop until the child tells someone they trust, usually a parent, teacher, caregiver, or law enforcement officer.
“What we like to tell parents is have the conversation with your kids. Make sure that they know that they can always come to them if they run into anyone online that they don’t know [or] that’s making them uncomfortable,” Schwinger said. “If they asked them to do anything that seems out of the ordinary, they should come and talk to their parents about it. They shouldn’t be embarrassed to do that.”
The FBI even has a game for third through eighth graders, called Safe Online Surfing, to help parents and teachers facilitate these conversations in a fun way.
Parents should watch out for any behavior changes in their children: nightmares, withdrawn behavior, angry outbursts, anxiety, depression, not wanting to be left alone with someone, and sexual knowledge. These could all be signs that the child is or has been the victim of sexual exploitation.
If parents suspect their child has been targeted, they should call law enforcement. Most predators that the FBI catches have spoken to many children and have stockpiled explicit images and videos, so coming forward with information will likely protect more than just one child.
In addition to talking to their children, there are several things that parents can do to help protect them from online predators:
- Review and approve games and apps before they’re downloaded.
- Make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible for online gaming systems and electronic devices.
- Monitor children’s use of the internet and keep electronic devices in an open common room in the house.
- Check children’s social media profiles and what they post online.