EDITOR’S NOTE — Across the nation, children and teens are plagued by a host of escalating tragedies. In this series, we look at several issues facing America’s endangered youth and offer ways you and your church can help care for the next generation. To see more stories in this series, click here.
It’s a scary reality for parents that is becoming more and more common in today’s society.
An estimated 500,000 online predators actively scan the internet each day to lure and exploit children sexually. According to the F.B.I., more than half of the children targeted are between the ages of 12 and 15. About 90 percent of the predators’ sexual advances are directed at children in internet chatrooms or through instant messaging.
How sexual predators work
Online predators visit social media websites to contact unsuspecting children. By using fake profile photos, pretending to share the same interests, offering gifts and jobs, providing a listening ear or complimenting the child, they try to earn the innocent child’s trust. In these ways, they groom the youngster into a relationship and then steer the conversations toward sex.
Often the predator will ask the child to make explicit photos or videos of himself or herself and send the images to him. He may also pressure the child to meet him in person. In some cases, the predator will blackmail the child, threatening to release and share the explicit photos with the child’s family — a crime called sextortion.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one out of seven children will receive unwanted sexual solicitations on the internet by online predators. One in 25 children will be manipulated or pressured into physical contact with the predators within a year.
Any child who has access to technology is a potential target.
The online predator is networked with millions of other like-minded individuals who share with each other their techniques and experiences. They know how to identify the most vulnerable victims and what techniques to use to groom children into taking and sending nude images or videos.
How churches can respond
How can churches identify possible child victims within their congregation and community and help prevent online sexual abuse?
Here are some suggestions:
- Research the problem and then preach, teach, pray and make church leadership, staff and members aware of the dangers of internet predators who prey on children.
- Provide resources that help educate and inform parents, grandparents, youth workers and others.
- Encourage parents to closely monitor their children’s internet involvement, to know who they are meeting and chatting with and to be aware of the social media apps, games, streaming devices and websites they use.
- Suggest they limit a child’s screen time and install parental control devices on their child’s computers, smartphones and other technological devices.
You can also encourage parents to talk openly and honestly with their children about appropriate behavior on the internet, such as teaching them to:
- Avoid talking to or receiving gifts from strangers on the internet.
- Never post personal information (home addresses, phone numbers, etc.).
- Never meet up with persons only known through the internet.
- Avoid personal chats with strangers online.
- Report possible predators to a parent or responsible adult.
Internet predators are becoming bolder, and online child sexual abuse and endangerment are quickly escalating.
According to the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, there was a staggering “97% increase in online enticement (in 2021) involving a child.”
Resources for parents and churches
- Visit the ICAC Task Force Contact Information section of the ICAC Task Force Program website (https://www.icactaskforce.org/TaskForceContacts) for state-specific contacts and websites.
- Check out resources provided by Project Safe Childhood, an organization that combats the proliferation of technology-facilitated sexual exploitation crimes against children: https://www.justice.gov/psc and www.projectsafechildhood.gov
- To learn more about staying safe from online predators, go to: https://edu.gcfglobal.org/en/internetsafetyforkids/staying-safe-from-online-predators/1/ and https://www.fbi.gov/how-we-can-help-you/parents-and-caregivers-protecting-your-kids.