Older people remember being warned against strangers who would try to lure youngsters off the streets with promises of candy, puppies and other surprises. The stereotype is due for a change as a new, dark frontier of child endangerment takes hold. While online casino sites may attract players with an exciting casino sign up bonus, they are extremely careful about NOT accepting underaged players. Not all gaming sites are so diligent - read on....
While the danger is mostly concentrated around social media and dating sites, much of it can be found on gaming sites where predators can find teens and tweens. Dr Jo Tully and Dr Janine Rowse, researchers at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and the Monash University Department of Forensic Medicine warn parents that these sites, hubs and apps offer the perfect storm for predators to fine potential victims for grooming and molestation.
Researchers term the new stranger-danger “technology-facilitated sexual assault (TFSA).” By using technology to identify and develop a relationship with young gamers, the predators wear down the victim’s defenses and are often successful in getting the young people to share sexual images and even meet up.
The 14-year long study found that, while between 2007 and 2013, 4% of reported sexual assaults occurred following an online connection, between 2014 and 2020 the number rose to 14% and in 2019, it was 19%. There are no numbers for 2020 and 2021 but the worry is that, with more kids at home due to pandemic social isolation, the number of kids at-risk has risen.
As new social media and gaming platforms emerge, the platforms that the predators use to contact and develop a relationship with the young gamers changes. At the beginning of the story the majority of the connections were made on Facebook. Today, Snapchat is a popular site for predators who find youngsters with whom they can “befriend.” “The reason that we conducted this research was that we were seeing sexual assaults on children that were technology-facilitated,” commented Dr Tully. “At the beginning of the study, the internet and social media were not such a big part of children’s lives, like they are now. It’s taken us all by surprise.”
Dr. Tully encourages parents to educate their children about the danger but he is also advocating for operators to show more responsibility. “At a bare minimum, they should have a robust age-verification system in place to prevent minors from joining these online adult communities. Games that children play online such as Minecraft, Fortnite and Roblox are also open to abuse by adults who can engage with children anonymously, and can pretend to be children.”
In the United States the Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched a campaign to warn parents about the dangers that can occur as a result of online gaming platforms. It’s estimated that half of children in the United States use a gaming platform. FBI Intelligence Analyst Chris Travis has been analyzing how sexual predators optimize gaming sites. According to Travis, predators use gaming sites’ voice communications, including chats, to make and develop contact with youngsters.
Once the predators established contact they would often encourage the victim to switch to another social media platform – one that gave them more information about the child and would allow for the exchange of photos and videos. They often posed as another child of the same age and, said Special Agent Pao Fisher, Travis’s partner, they would slowly become more aggressive and demand more compromising images. As soon as they obtained the compromising photos they would threaten to expose the photos or would threaten the victim’s family to keep them online.
Travis and Fisher’s work resulted in a new FBI project, It’s Not a Game. The campaign aims to alert the public about the danger through panel discussions and public service announcements. It’s important, said supervisory Special Agent Seamus Clarke, for parents to exert more control over what their children are accessing.
“Practically all recent cell phones and tablets have built-in features that allow parents and guardians to have varying degrees of control over how the device is used or isn’t used by their child,” said Clarke. “Exact settings differ depending on the manufacturer, but there are generally common features devices share parents should know about. I highly suggest parents take the time to get familiar with their child’s device and ensure it is properly set up.”
Importance of Gaming for Young People
Even the FBI realizes that advising parents to keep their kids off gaming sites isn’t realistic. This is especially true now, when, for many young people, their gaming activities are vital for pandemic-era social interaction. But even the most vigilant of parents aren’t always aware that their child has established contact with an online predator.
The FBI says that the ever-evolving number of apps makes it difficult to track online predators. At Dragonfly House, an advocacy and assistance center for children who have suffered sexual abuse, medical director Amy Suttle said, “There are a lot of positives with technology today, but there are a lot of dangers as well. In some cases, the parents didn’t know their kids were being solicited. They were hesitant to invade their privacy or they just didn’t know what to look for.
Recent stay-at-home COVID-19 restrictions have led to a lack of supervision and social isolation which, in turn has increased predators’ access to children. “(The kids) have had a lack of interaction with their peers and they are using social media and online apps as a way to communicate, and it is not always people they know. Just like adults, kids are more likely to be depressed after months of staying at home and more vulnerable to being accessed online,” Suttle said.
Bill Sweeney of the New York FBI office said the FBI isn’t suggesting that parents keep children off online games. “As much as we want to shield our children from every evil in the world, that’s not a practical way to live,” he said. “Children are going to play these online games, and that’s okay. But we can set parameters, we can learn the security settings on our devices, and we can talk with our children, or find someone for them to talk to.”
Detective David Blake of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office suggests some safety precautions:
- Parents should maintain open communication with their children.
- Parents should make sure that their children have private accounts and that the parents control the privacy settings.
- Parents can set controls that prevent the child from accepting friend requests without parents’ permission.
- Parents should have access to their child’s accounts and should monitor the accounts on a regular basis.
- Parents should make it clear that they are open to any conversation about any topic and will not be angry or upset about a topic or concern that the child raises.