Protecting Kids From Online Predators

by | Feb 4, 2016 | Late Breaking News, Online Safety, Parenting

Troubling research about our kids’ lack of online smarts and predators’ new grooming techniques to lure them. Advice based on new studies to keep kids safer online and parents and child givers better educated.

Studies show that predators are using more subtle and savvier ways to “befriend” kids including pretending to be another teen or child as a means of forming a relationship.  The purpose of this blog is not to scare you or have you overreact and pull the plug on your computer. The chance that your child will be befriended by an online predator is rare. But the news about two Virginia Tech students befriending and then luring a vulnerable 13 year old online only to allegedly murder her is so horrific and sad that it should make every parent watch their children closer and have a serious conversation about online safety. 

But the Virginia Tech story is not isolated. Over the last few months a few parents have contacted me about their children who did encounter online predators. Two teen girls left with those men who groomed them online. Their parents are trying desperately to reunite with their daughters. Both families recognized the warnings I’m giving in this post – but only after I shared them. They urged me to post them. “If we’d only known,” they  told me.

So, not to scare you, just to educate you and hopefully save you from the heartbreak those parents are now enduring.

An Online Predator’s Profile

The term “Sex Predator” is a universal parent nightmare. The term alone sends shock-waves through every bone in our body.  

University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center survey rejects the idea that the Internet is an especially perilous place for minors, but finds that the nature of online sex crimes against minors has actually changed little between 2000 and 2006. But we do need to stay educated. 

We know online predators do exist, are a very real threat, and use the anonymity of the Internet to their advantage. Here is what you need to know to help your child.

A predator can be a he or a she, young or old, rich or poor, or any race or zip code. Law enforcement officers are noting a change most in the profile of the adult offenders. The proportion of younger adult offenders, aged 18-25, rose from 23 percent to 40 percent of arrests in cases with actual underage victims. The researchers hypothesize that the age shift may be a consequence of younger adults, who came of age online, and are now more likely to seek out victims on the Internet than elsewhere.

The Grooming Process

Regardless of age, predators have one commonality: they are master manipulators when it comes to kids.

Online predators rarely swoop in lure children or teens into quickly meeting at the local park and then abducting them. Instead, they build a relationship with the child online and slowly develop trust.

The actual “Grooming Process” can take several months in which the predator’s goal is to create a comfortable bond between himself and child. That bond is difficult to track but does give parents time if you are monitoring your child and your child’s online presence.

Research finds that one big problem is that kids can’t spot whether they are chatting online with an adult or a teen.

REALITY CHECK: 4 in 5 kids can’t tell age of person they are chatting with

For the past several months students from various ages have been taking part in experiments designed to help researchers know how to create the right software to track pedophiles online.

The 350 children and teens in the study are from the Queen Elizabeth School, Kirby Lonsdale, Cumbria. The funded project is part of the Economic and Social Research Council/Engineering and Physical Science Research Council.

The good news in the research (and there is some!): the computer software did “significantly better in correctly working out whether web chat was written by a child or an adult in 47 out of 50 cases–even when the adult was pretending to be a child.” But some findings should be a parenting wake-up call.

What Kids Don’t Know That Could Hurt Them

Four in five children can’t tell when they are talking to an adult posing as a child on the internet.

Four in five kids thought they were chatting to a teen when in fact it was an adult

Students as old as 17 struggle to tell the difference between an adult posing as a child or a real child “befriending” them online

Overall only 18% of children taking part in the experiment guessed correctly as to the age of the “predator”

6 Messages to Keep Kids Safer Online

While there’s no guarantee that we can always protect our kids, research is clear that the more educated we are about potential dangers the less likely our children will be victimized. Children who are unsupervised, more vulnerable, lack friends, bullied at school are also more vulnerable to an online predator. 

Beware: authorities have growing concerns about popular mobile messaging apps like kik, that allow users to remain anonymous and appeal to a younger crowds. Know the apps that are on your child’s digital devices. 

You must be educated about online safety — and then you need to teach your child those lessons.  Just keep tips age appropriate and remember that it is always better to bridge such a topic in short ongoing chats instead of one big marathon lecture.

A  key point: teens say that “being educated” helps them be safer. You might want to review the research from Queen Elizabeth School with your teen.

Here are a few messages to weave into your critical parenting lessons.

1. “Never-ever-give personal data online”

Never give out personal information online must be your one “no budge” family rule. We taught our children that rule when they were toddlers (“Don’t give your name and phone number to strangers.”) Use the same rule with your older child or teen.

Detective T.J. Shaver of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office in Kansas points out: “Predators often use multiple accounts to get information from children. In one account they get a name, on another, they will obtain school information and activities. On a third they will get the child to talk about their hobbies.” Withholding personal data makes it difficult for a predator to befriend a child.

2. “Do not post photos divulging identity and interests

One way predators try to build “trusting” with a child is by trying to establish  that they “share” similar interests. So predators often search profiles and read emails and chat rooms to gather information about the child’s actual interests or passions and then convince the child that they have a lot in common: Tell your child to never post photos divulging such information. (Such as a kid wearing a hockey jersey. “Hey, I love to play hockey. Do you?” A picture of her with her favorite handbag. “I love Coach bags. What about you?” A t-shirt wearing bearing his school colors, name or mascot,)

3. “I will be supervising that computer”

Do NOT give free reign on that computer. Predators pick up on little cues that certain kids are not supervised – which means easier access for them. (For instance: the child is online for extended periods of time or online during hours when parents would be normally monitoring that computer).

4. “Be wary of any adult who wants to “keep a secret”

Predators want to keep their relationship with a child a secret from . their parent. A predator may also make a threat to the intended victim if “he tells.”

Teach the True Friend Rule: “Would a real friend ever threaten you or your family with harm?”

5. “NEVER ever meet anyone you meet online face to face”

Period. End of statement. 

6. “You can tell me anything

Stress to your child messages such as: “I’m here for you. We can work things through. I love you.” In case there is a problem, your child needs to know he or she can come to you and that you are always there for them.

Clues A Child May Have “Online Troubles”

The reality is that your teen may not tell you that he or she is cyber-bullied or approached by a potential predator, but there are clues. The trick is to watch your child’s reactions in certain situations. Each situation is different but there are some warning signs.

Keep in mind that the signs may not indicate a predator relationship, but should be checked out. 

Does your child receive strange phone calls, mail or gifts from people you do not know? (A predator may send “gifts” to befriend a child).

Does your kid switch screen names quickly or cover up the screen when you walk by the computer?

Has your child set up other accounts recently to receive e-mail, texts, or Instant Messaging?

Does your child appear nervous when you (or he) goes to the computer?

Has your child withdrawn from normal activity and is spending more and more time on the computer?

Is your teen suddenly trying to use the computer during off times when you’re not there or in the room?

Does your child get jumpy or upset when a phone call, test, voice mail or IM comes in?

Is there porn on the computer? While your child may have put that up, do know that predators often send pornographic pictures via the IM session or e-mail or in plain envelope via the mail. (Check your mailbox!) Beware: A predator can also use that pornography that as a scare tactic to a child: “If you cut off our relationship, I’ll tell your parent that you have viewed pornographic pictures.” 

Stay educated about the Internet. Know your computer. Know your child. Believe your child. And above all, stay in charge!


Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. You can also refer to my  blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.

My new book, UNSELFIE: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World will be in print June 2016. My goal is to create a conversation that makes us rethink or view of success as exclusively grades, rank and score and includes traits of humanity! It’s time to include “empathy” in our parenting.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba