When the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic one year ago, a worldwide transition to remote work and education occurred for many almost overnight. And while we were preoccupied with adapting careers and schoolwork to a virtual experience, online predators suddenly had an influx of distracted, stressed and overwhelmed children, tweens and teens who could be accessed at the click of a key.
Titania Jordan saw the results firsthand. Jordan is chief marketing officer and parent information officer at Bark, a tech service that uses software to monitor young computer users’ online activities for threats such as cyberbullying, sexual predators and adult content. Bark also alerts parents and guardians to signs of depression, suicidal thoughts and other concerns.
“Online predation at the onset of the pandemic rose 23 percent,” says Jordan. “And by that, I mean at Bark we alert parents to digital dangers, and we sent 23 percent more alerts surrounding this danger specifically of online predators. Because predators were quarantined, they knew kids were stuck at home and they were using that to their specific purposes.”
Jassamine Tabibi is a research associate for the Learning Network/Knowledge Hub at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children at Western University in Ontario, Canada. Not only did the pandemic bring more kids online for longer times, but it also put added stresses on parents and guardians, making them less able to effectively monitor their children’s virtual activities.
“Parents may be at work, busy working from home or navigating their own challenges related to the pandemic, (for example) job loss and substance use,” Tabibi says. “Children may be looked after by siblings or grandparents who may not actively be monitoring what children are consuming online.
In April, May and June of 2020, Canadian police in a variety of regions saw an increase in reports of sexual exploitation of children. In those same months, reports to the United States’ National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from young people who had been sexually exploited and citizens noting people trying to sexually abuse children online increased by 81%.
A year later, internet dangers are no less of a threat. While some people are returning to the office or classroom, tech experts don’t anticipate that the dependence on in-person attendance at work, school and meetups will ever return to pre-pandemic levels.
“We have transitioned into a new world. It’s a new society,” says Nevin Markwart, chief information security officer at FutureVault, a Las Vegas, Nevada-based company that provides a virtual secure “vault” where clients deposit, store and manage important documents. “The circumstance that we lived through in 2020 is probably going to perpetuate itself for the rest of time.”
Even before the pandemic, online threats to kids were concerning. In 2019, Bark analyzed more than 838 million messages sent via texts, email, online games and over 300 apps and social media platforms. The findings were enough to make any parent or guardian take note:
86.8% of tweens and 89.6% of teens expressed or experienced violent subject matter or thoughts.
76.2% of tweens and 78.4% of teens experienced cyberbullying as a bully, victim or witness.
70.7% of tweens and 84% of teens encountered nudity or sexual content.
55.1% of tweens and 67.1% of teens engaged in conversations about depression.
35.1% of tweens and 54.4% of teens were involved in a self-harm/suicidal situation.
Jordan, who also authored the book Parenting in a Tech World and founded its companion Facebook group, often hears from anxious parents who want to know if certain social media sites or phone apps are more dangerous for kids than others. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.
“The ability for somebody to message your child or comment on one of their posts if they have a public account, the ability for (kids) to search and then land on problematic content — that exists no matter what social media platform they’re in,” she says. “Let’s talk about YouTube. A lot of parents think, ‘Oh, my kid just goes to watch videos. No big deal.’ Well, there is a comments section on YouTube, and if you are not using YouTube Kids or have certain parental controls selected, that comment section can be incredibly toxic.
“Netflix has great content for kids, but it also has adult content. And if you haven’t implemented the parental controls and PIN code for it, your young child could stumble upon content that they’ll never be able to unsee.”
Adds Tabibi, “In general, predators are luring kids on approximately 200 online platforms young people use to connect.”
It’s enough to make you hide your child’s phone and ban them from the internet on the family computer. But that’s the wrong move, experts caution. Kids increasingly depend on those devices to socialize with peers, do research for school and learn new skills, from sports techniques that help them improve on the field to hobbies they enjoy. And if they do sneak access and then encounter an online threat, they’ll be reticent to report it, making them more vulnerable than ever.
So what’s a concerned adult to do? Experts say you can help protect your child while still ensuring they benefit from the positive aspects of the World Wide Web.
Get real about the threat. “The first thing for parents to keep in mind is that this is actually a problem,” Jordan cautions. “Some people have the ‘not my child’ syndrome. Yes, it can happen to your child. There are many stories about kids being lured away to meet people that they met through video games and Snapchat, and it’s kids that knew better. They knew ‘stranger danger.’ Their parents talked to them about these things, and it still happened.”
Activate parental controls. Your cable system, internet and cell phone providers most likely give you the ability to limit the types of content your children can access and actions they can take. So do some of the most popular social media apps. Contact your service provider or plug the name of the service or app along with “parental controls” into an internet search engine for instructions. You can also consider a free or fee-based monitoring service that will track your child’s activities and alert you to concerns.
Don’t overlook lessons on basic security. One of the most common overall internet threats is phishing, when a cybercriminal sends you an email that resembles one from a seemingly familiar site or contact, like a bank, online shop or friend or family member. Somewhere in that email will be a link, supposedly to your account information, a discount, a contest award, a funny video or any number of other inviting offers. When you or your child click on the link, you go to a website that downloads malicious software on your device. It might monitor your every keystroke, identify your passwords and search the web for your bank, credit card and shopping accounts. Or it could install ransomware that will lock you out of your computer, and the criminal will demand payment to allow you back in.
This is bad enough when it happens to your personal devices. But with more parents working from home and more kids needing online access for education, chances increase that your child might put your work devices at risk too, cautions FutureVault’s Markwart.
“There’s the potential for a huge spillover from students needing to get online and parents acquiescing and allowing business devices to be used on that basis,” he says. “That has a number of security ramifications. The greater the opportunity for there to be uploads and downloads, the greater the opportunity is for someone to be phished.”
Markwart suggests teaching basic “internet hygiene” as early and as often as we teach children to wash their hands and brush their teeth. Stress the importance of not clicking on links without verifying that they’re legitimate (simply hovering your cursor over the link will reveal the actual web address behind it) and not sharing passwords with anyone but parents or guardians.
Know how predators work. As in the real world, online predators “groom” their targets to put them at ease and gain their confidence.
“Predators may pretend to be in the same age group as those they chat with through various platforms or pose as a trusted adult to form a bond in hopes of eventually meeting in person,” Tabibi explains. “They may engage in a number of dangerous activities with a child online known as ‘luring.’ This can include convincing a child or youth to reveal personal details about themselves and family members, send photos or meet in person. They may ask a lot of questions about (the child), school, feelings and experiences, but reveal very little about themselves.”
If a predator gains access to a child’s address, they might also send gifts with instructions not to tell anyone about the “secret.” These tactics — part of a technique known as “love bombing” — are especially effective on children already suffering disproportionately from pandemic-exaggerated stresses like abuse or neglect at home, depression and anxiety or a parent’s addiction to drugs or alcohol.
To safeguard against these threats, have candid, age-appropriate conversations with your child, stressing that while the internet brings many positive benefits, it also comes with dangers just like “real life.” Even young children can and should learn this lesson, Jordan says.
“With regard to online predators and sexual abuse and some of the most terrible things that happen to kids in this world, your 6-year-old might not be able to comprehend that concept. But what they can comprehend is the concept of a tricky person: ‘There are people online who are going to trick you. They might seem really nice. They might seem really friendly. They might even offer you a gift or coins in an app. But they are trying to trick you. They are not good people.’”
Strangers aren’t the only danger. Don’t make the mistake of being so fixated on threats from the outside that you overlook one of the most frequent causes of internet harm.
“While the risk of online predators targeting children is very real,” Tabibi says, “it is important to remember that cyberbullying from people that children do know — peers, classmates — is common and has the potential to become even more commonplace with remote learning.”
L1ght, a company that uses artificial intelligence to help web hosts find and eliminate toxic and dangerous posts and activities, released a study showing that during the initial quarantines in spring 2020, hate speech between kids and teens increased 70%.
“There are plenty of stories about children as young as 7 and 8 and 9 dying by suicide because of cyber bullying and other mental health issues,” cautions Jordan.
Watch for warning signs. Whatever the online threat, be vigilant in monitoring your child’s behavior on and offline. Are they sleeping or eating more or less than usual? Have their grades dropped? Are they no longer participating in activities they love? Do they seem angry, sad or anxious, especially when they’re using tech? Do they huddle over their phones to block you from seeing the screen or frequently retreat to their room with a phone or laptop? These are all signs that something could be amiss and you probably should have a conversation.
Be present. Don’t just talk to your child about the responsibilities and dangers that come with using the internet. Talk with them.
“If you come at it from a place of, ‘You need to do this because I told you,’ you’re probably not going to get very far,” warns Jordan. “But if you do it from a place of, ‘Let’s navigate tech together. Mom and dad have certain concerns and questions too, and we’re going to get through this,’ you’ll get a lot further.”
And even if you have no interest in online games, if your child loves them, make an effort to learn. The next time they go online, watch them in action and ask about the plot, how to play, what levels you can explore and who they’re chatting with.
“You wouldn’t drop your second grader off at an elementary school without ever stepping foot in the building,” says Jordan. “You’re going to look at the locks on the doors and see if the bathrooms are clean and get to know the classroom. You’re going to check it out. Same thing. You can’t let your child play Minecraft or Roadblock or fill-in-the-blank game without sitting there beside them and watching.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Kiwanis magazine.
Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels