As a parent you'd naturally be upset if a stranger were following your child around the mall or your neighborhood, so why aren't parents upset that their kids are being followed around in online games?
When "anismuncher1" is asking all players in a game geared toward children, "where do you live?" do you get the chills or do you have a sense of insulation because it's just on the Internet? When a Roblox player is following the girl characters around saying "you're pretty" do you see an imminent threat, a predator hunting for vulnerable children, or a weirdo looking for attention?
If someone walked up to your kid in the park and asked where they live, or a man walks up to your 10 year old in the mall and tells them "you're pretty", what would you do? Ask them what they are doing, tell them you don't want them speaking to your child, call mall security, call the cops? Why does the same actions in two different locations illicit such polar opposite responses for most people?
Much of the answer comes from our conditioning on what the Internet is and how we as adults view and use it. For most parents, who did not have the Internet as young children, we have a healthy sense of what complete and utter BS much of the Internet is. We don't look at a dating site and believe those prospective dates are telling the full truth. We don't believe the crazy story about the cactus that exploded with spiders is anything more than an urban legend. But our young, impressionable, trusting children don't have the same cynical view. Children are accustomed to what is being presented to them as being the truth. Their trust is proved time and time again as they learn about the world around them as they go through school. They look at games like Wizard101, Moshi Monster, Marvel Heroes, or Roblox and see other kids, why wouldn't they tell them where they live?
As parents we don't allow our children to wander crime ridden areas of town unsupervised, so why do so many allow their children out on the Internet unsupervised?
Many of these games make an effort to protect children online; they understand that children are naturally trusting and take steps to eliminate inappropriate language, bullying and the sharing of personal information. For instance Wizard101 includes moderated message boards:
"Our message boards have been designed to allow players to exchange game information and experiences, ask questions about the game, and generally socialize with other players. To ensure all interactions are safe, we have a team of moderators overseeing all message board activity. They review, edit, and sometimes delete messages so board discussions stay safe and on-track."
Roblox's community rules inlcudes rules intended to protect children's personal information and to protect them from predatory behavior:
"Personal information. We strongly encourage you to protect your personal information. In some cases (such as when you are under 13), we employ automated tools and other techniques so as to help comply with legal requirements concerning your personal information. In all cases, you are not allowed to share personal information of others. Personal information includes:
Child endangerment. We have users of all ages and we want to create safe environment for all of them, including children. So, we do not allow any actions that could put children in inappropriate or dangerous situations, including:
The games are openly acknowledging the potential danger, so why aren't more parents taking proactive steps towards protecting their kids? For most they simply don't realize the danger and as most people don't read the service agreements or terms of service they sign up for themselves why are they going to read the information provided by that silly game their kiddo wants to play? Every parent should make sure to read the information provided in games, for the same reason you need to reach the social media terms of service before allowing your child to participate in that. Here is a portion of Twitter's Terms of Service that most parents are surprised by:
"Twitter allows some forms of graphic violence and/or adult content in Tweets marked as containing sensitive media. However, you may not use such content in your profile or header images. Additionally, Twitter may sometimes require you to remove excessively graphic violence out of respect for the deceased and their families if we receive a request from their family or an authorized representative."
Well isn't it good to know that Twitter might remove that image of someone dead out of concern for the family, but don't expect them to remove any of the hardcore porn the kids now have access to. If you want to know why magazines like Playboy no longer have a following hop on Twitter and search "XXX" or "porn" and you will wonder no more.
If you want to learn more about online crimes against children the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a great deal of information, from information to keep children safe online to victim identification programs. The victim identification program takes the images of children who are being victimized, sanitizes them and then attempts to identify the child and rescue them from the abusive situation.
To help you get an understanding of the crimes against children on the Internet, there have been over 15 million reports sent to the NCMEC via their Cyber Tip Line since 2011. The reports range from individuals seeing an image of a child, that is a stranger to them, being victimized in a photograph, to those reporting on behalf of a friend, to reports of "sextortion". While all online crimes against children are terrible the newer crime of sextortion is particularly horrifying.
As defined by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, sextortion is "Coercion and blackmail are used to acquire sexual content (like photos or videos) of a minor, to extort the child for money, or to meet to engage in sex with the child." In the two full years between 2013 and 2015 they saw a 90% increase in reports of sextortion and that figure was up again 150% in the first several months of 2016. General statistics on sextortion victims are that 78% are female, 15% are male and in 7% of the cases gender was not reported. Victims range in age from 8 to 17 years old with the average age being 15, males are less likely to be on the younger end of the spectrum. 24% of the victims either knew or suspected other children were being victimized.
The NCMEC breaks down where the tips were received from. Many of you will be shocked that 33% of the tips come from technology companies. These will likely have come in from a variety of contexts - an Internet Service Provider being notified through an abuse@ email address that all ISPs keep for reporting criminal or malicious behavior and through a technology service company having come across an image or messaging on a phone or other device that was being serviced at the time. 24% or tips were received from the child themselves and 22% were received from the parent or guardian. Other tipsters include friends, siblings, police, teachers, counselors, and online strangers who witness these communications in chat type rooms or on social media. Male victims were statistically more likely to self report, while female victims were more likely to have the technology company or a peer report on their behalf.
Sextortion is most frequently perpetrated through phone or tablet messaging apps, social networking sites and video chats. A typical scenario is a victim is singled out by the predator on some kind of social site, personal information is gathered about the child (usually including friends names, family names, school information) and often the child believes they have formed a friendship with this person, and they are also often under the belief that this person is just another child. The predator then moves the line of communication to a more private chat or an app that live streams, this is where the initial sexual content (pictures or videos) is obtained. This content is then used to blackmail the child into providing further images, videos, money, drugs, or to meet in person and perform sexual acts on the blackmailer. The information gathering portion is important at this point, because the predator has names and contact information in which they say they will contact and share the original content with. 67% of the blackmailers threaten to post the content publicly, 29% threaten to provide the images to friends and family. Because they are children and are to say the least not equipped to handle this, they tend to believe (again the tendency towards trust) that complying with the demands of the blackmailer will put an end to this nightmare, that however is not the case as the blackmailers usually continue to demand more from their victims.
There are other threats used to force the child to do what the predator wants. The list provided by the NCMEC:
- Promise of reciprocity (typically used on male victims where the predator pretends to either be female or younger than the victim)
- Threatening to physically or sexually assault the child or a member of the child's family
- Using multiple identities (child has made multiple friends online and doesn't realize that some are the same person, one as the predator, and one acting as a supportive friend encouraging them to comply with the predator to make him/her go away)
- Threatening to commit suicide if the child doesn't comply
- Threatening to create a fake online profile of the child
- Offering the child money or drugs in exchange for complying
- Pretending to work for a modeling agency
So now you're head is reeling! You've read the articles about how so many parents in the tech industry are keeping their own kids off of technology and the Internet and now hopefully you understand some of the why. But what do you do? Throw it all away? Well if you want to be done with technology at home that's an option, but remember most schools are also heavily utilizing it as well. Our best advice to parents really comes from the Harry Potter series and Alastor Moody "Constance Vigilance!" Parents must read terms of service, check chat history, help your kids to understand that people tell many lies online, tell them to never answer personal questions like where they live or go to school or what their name is, read the chat windows passing by while the kids are playing online games, utilize a program like Qustudio or PhoneSheriff if you're concerned issues are arising when away from the home and possibly the most important advice we give all parents is devices: phones, tablets, computers must always be used in a public / family space. Getting a child alone to talk them into that first sexually explicit picture is these perpetrators goals and if you don't allow for that opportunity you've gone a long way to keeping your kids safe.
If you have questions or need more information please give us a call.