Digital Perpetrators and the Online Grooming of Children and Youth StolenYouth’s Joel Katz sat down with Nathan LaChine from Evergreen Caregiver Support to discuss the realities surrounding online grooming of children and youth.
Today’s children are the first generation to be born into a digital age. Most get their first cell phone before they’re a teenager, and many admit to checking their social media statuses in the middle of the night. It’s common for some kids to invest multiple hours a day playing video games.
The most popular games and apps for kids often have a social and messaging component — Roblox, Minecraft, and Twitch are examples of gaming platforms that provide an alternate way of making friends online. While playing games and interacting on the internet, kids create real connectivity, which can become as important (if not more important) to them as their real-world networks. Through play, kids feel safe and learn to trust others — digital relationships are no different.
“When they are playing video games or engaging on social media,” explains Nathan LaChine, (Founder) of Evergreen Caregiver Support, “kids’ defense mechanisms may not be up, and they aren’t thinking ‘stranger danger.’ Unfortunately, there are a variety of dangers lurking online.”
The vast growth of digital connectivity of children and youth also increases opportunities for perpetrators.
Do you know who your kids are engaging with online?
Do you know what topics they are searching for?
Do you know who is on the other end of the messages they receive?
Due to rapid technological changes, online child sexual exploitation offenses are growing in scale and complexity. The FBI estimates an estimated 500,000 sexual predators are active on the internet each day with over 50 percent of the victims of online sexual exploitation being between the ages of 12 and 15.
Online perpetration is one of the highest growing crimes against youth. From 2013 to 2021 the number of Cyber Tipline reports skyrocketed from 500,000 to 30 million as reported by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). Instead of going to a physical location to scout kids, a perpetrator can send out messages via a chatroom and connect with masses of young people instantly.
Child sex trafficking can happen in these online ecosystems when the exploiter recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains the minor knowing the minor would be caused to engage in a commercial sex act, which is broadly defined as having the child engage in any type of sexual activity in exchange for something of value like cash, video games, tokens, illicit substances, clothing or anything else minors gravitate towards these days.
Adult predators looking to groom children online often visit social media websites that are popular with young people and will pretend to be their age — it can start on any site, app, messaging platform, or game where people meet and communicate. As LaChine noted, “In the gaming world, perpetrators play the same games, join the same teams, and compete in the same tournaments; via social media, perpetrators read profile information, browse comments, and review most recent check-ins.” All this information is easily accessible via gaming profiles and social media handles as many kids use the same names across platforms. The pictures kids post host a slew of information from geotag location data to subtleties in the background of images.
Online grooming may be difficult to detect because it often occurs while a child is home and simply playing online games, using chatrooms, or posting on social media.
The process begins with information gathering, which is often readily available without the victim knowing this to be the case. The grooming starts when young people believe they are communicating with someone their own age when they are actually talking to an adult posing as a peer. The perpetrator’s approach is to show interest in building a relationship and offering something of value, like money for a micro-transaction in a video game. The perpetrator builds dependency and emotional reliance, which can claw unconsciously at the victim. Once an online relationship has been established, the groomer will often steer the conversation towards sex where the child may be pressured to take explicit photos or videos of themselves and send them to the groomer.
The sextortion begins with a threat of exposure or a threat to publish the content with family, friends, or their school community. So much information has already been disclosed (or is readily available online just from their profiles), so they are essentially blackmailed. The shame, fear, and confusion children feel when they are caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse.
They have been groomed.
A digital frontier exists, and we have not equipped our young people on how to safely navigate the internet. Caregivers and youth should understand how these crimes occur and openly discuss online safety. We need to focus on education and empowerment in order to protect our kids. This is no different than drivers’ education, sexual education, or drug prevention – a public health crisis exists because the internet is so powerful.
Stolen Youth is working with and finding organizations who are established leaders in providing solutions. We recently provided funding to Scarlett Road for their Unbroken Curriculum, which has been presented to over 600 youth this year. The program is a two-day classroom takeover, offering health and civics teachers the opportunity to dive deep into prevention and awareness around safe relationships and sexual exploitation of youth.
Caregivers must have frequent discussions with youth about the family rules and expectations of behavior online. One suggestion is to utilize an internet and mobile data contract agreement can be a great primary to aid in these discussions. The contract should clearly lay out rules, expectations, and consequences for violation of the agreement that both caregivers and youth have signed/agreed to.