By Haven Evans
When I first came across recent The Wall Street Journal “As Children Spend More Time Online, Predators Follow” I was alarmed but not surprised to read about the national rates of online child exploitation reports. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in March of this year they had received two million reports of online child exploitation—that number is up by more than 980,000 reports a year prior. To know that the rates of incidents continues to skyrocket from year to year shows us three things:
- Law enforcement agencies (local, state, and federal) have made it a priority to investigate these kinds of reports and prosecute these incidents as crimes;
- Online websites and social media companies have dedicated resources and staff to review the reports they receive and they turning over their findings to law enforcement;
- As our world becomes increasingly interconnected and technology plays a greater role in our lives, our children are spending much more time online and on social media sites.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and daycares have been closed and children have been quarantined at home, with many doing virtual learning with their teachers – this dynamic has only led to children being more plugged in online. Law enforcement officials from various agencies have said that there has been a rise in reported cases of online children exploitation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they believe that predators are seeking children out more because they know there is a greater number of them who are plugged in online. Steven J. Grocki, chief of the U.S. Justice Department’s child exploitation and obscenity section is quoted in the article as saying, “you have the perfect storm where millions of kids are home across the country and the world, and they are probably more unsupervised than they have been before the pandemic.”
Given that our state and country’s leading medical experts and officials have said that the coronavirus could be with us for quite some time—until a drug or vaccine is discovered—and children will continue to be at home and plugged-in more online, how can you keep them safe?
We wanted to provide teachers, therapists, child-care professional, and any agencies that work in-directly and directly with children with a few tips:
- Make sure that children know they have a voice. If anyone is making them feel uncomfortable—no matter who it is—they should come to you or an adult they trust.
- Ask them what social media platforms they use. The most popular social media platforms are Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, or Tik Tok? We would recommend visiting these platforms and checking out how each of them work, so you can better understand the interactions children have on them.
- You should keep an open dialogue with them about their online use and discuss the potential risks of communicating with strangers. Ask who their friends are that they communicate with and what they talk about. Remind children that if they are ever uncomfortable at any time in their conversations with their friends or anyone else, they can take steps to stop interactions that make them feel uncomfortable and tell an adult.
- If anyone sends inappropriate messages or explicit information to children online, you should report them to your local law enforcement.
Haven Evans has been the Director of Training at the Pa Family Support Alliance since 2016. She has extensive experience and knowledge of Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law. Prior to her role at the Pa Family Support Alliance, Haven was a ChildLine supervisor and a ChildLine Manager. There she was responsible for managing the state’s 24/7 intake unit that responds to a large volume and variety of calls regarding the care of children, particularly reports of suspected child abuse or neglect.