Jentrie Hales, community advocate, @techhealthyfamily
My 4-year-old and I recently watched the children’s movie Zootopia together. There, we learned all about predators. We learned that they come in all shapes and sizes. Animal predators can be as obviously dangerous as a lion or a polar bear or as subtle as a little sea otter or a skunk. We learned that predators prey on smaller and weaker animals around them when they are in their natural state. The movie also teaches us that before animals evolved to live peacefully together, predators were dangerous and could not be trusted.
As informational and frankly beautiful as the movie was, it got me thinking about the parallels of online predators. Unfortunately, this is becoming a more common topic of discussion as we regularly hear example after example about children’s harmful and dangerous experiences with online predators who are going “savage” online.
According to the Child Crime Prevention and Safety Center, there are an estimated 500,000 active predators online and active each day, many of whom have multiple accounts and outlets they are using. Sadly, children ages 12-15 are most targeted by predators. The majority of these conversations happen through chatrooms and instant messaging. That fact is alarming to consider because almost every app we use, whether games or social media, has a way to chat internally with other users.
These conversations first happen innocently by the predator feigning “friendship.” But as they groom our children, phish for identifying information, and then mirror their feelings and emotions, they build strong, dangerous bonds that allow them to manipulate and isolate children into doing whatever they want. A lot of the time what they are after is sexual conversations and images, and sometimes in-person meetings.
Who are these people that have unlimited time to build connections and trust with young, impressionable people? While some statistics are available, the short answer is, WE DO NOT KNOW. That is what makes it scary and alarming. The online world makes it so easy for these people to be elusive and secretive.
Combining my professional experience with others, here are some ‘don’ts’ when approaching the topic of online predators:
Don’t assume your child is immune to the influence of an online predator. These people are professionals. They have unlimited children to try their techniques on, as well as apps that make it easy for them. Recently TikTok came out with the “teen” filter (which surprisingly doesn’t change your appearance to add acne and braces) that changes the user’s face to look like a much younger version of themself. We innately have instincts that help keep us safe, but features like this make it harder and harder to be in tune with that instinct.
Don’t send your kids to places where predators are. It’s harsh and not the answer our children are looking for, but people that prey on kids go where the kids are. According to Bark, a parental controls app, some of the most common places predators are found include Snapchat, Discord, Instagram, Among Us, and Roblox. If you or your child is using technology for any form of conversation, online predators should constantly be a discussion.
Don’t let someone else have a closer relationship with your kid than you do. Be aware of what’s going on in your child’s life. Know what they do online. Know what they like and don’t like. Know what they are worried and stressed about. Validate their emotions and feelings. Be present and engaged with them. Be someone they can go to so they don’t feel encouraged to go to someone else.
Parenting in the digital world can be overwhelming and scary, but not ignoring these issues is much more terrifying.
Jentrie Hales is a community advocate with five years’ of experience empowering parents and children in different settings. She has been invited into classrooms, youth groups, and parent groups throughout Cache Valley to speak about healthy relationships with tech and professionally mentors families that feel overwhelmed with managing the tech in their home. Connect with her at techheatlhyfam@ gmail.com or on Instagram @techhealthyfam.