Michelle Busch-Upwall is the Utah ICAC Task Force Education Specialist at the Utah AG Office. She comes in to work every morning to work on cyber-tips generated from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The tips come from all sorts of places including social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest. She takes a lot of calls from parents that are concerned that their children are being groomed or enticed online, or concerned that their child has sent in an image or a video online. A lot of times these crimes cross state boundaries especially on those cyber tipline reports.
For example, say there is a predator in Utah and there is a child or a victim in New York. Both task forces are working together to protect that child and to get the predator that is trying to entice online.
What does grooming look like?
- Predators seek trust from victims.
Whatever kids are lacking in their lives, traffickers want to be their number one in that area. I have seen several videos where kids talk about “He was my number one confident, I could tell him anything.” At the same time, traffickers try and pull them away from family and friends.
- Predators give child validation.
They compliment them. Tweens and teens are self conscious, and they are looking for compliments or reassurances. That happens a lot with predators.
- Predators may give gifts.
Gifts are often sent through the mail, whether it be a phone to keep in contact with them all the time, or tickets. These can be bus tickets, plane tickets, whatever it may be.
A predators goal = receive content or exploit in person
Eventually predators will bring up sexual content because a predator’s main goal is to get a child out of a home for sex. That is their number one goal. So eventually they will go into those inappropriate conversations and they’ll ask the child to send pictures and videos.
Predators will hide their identity
A lot of times predators will pretend to be someone else. For example, an adult will pretend to be a 13 year old boy talking to a 13 year old girl. So, we have to help kids understand that we can’t trust everyone online and that we don’t meet people that we only know online. Let your kids how dangerous that is. We need to educate them so they know the grooming process, so they know when someone is trying to entice them.
As parents, it’s tough because we want to protect them, but we can’t protect them from all this. We have to educate them so that they can protect themselves.
How can parents prepare their kids to be safe online?
- Communication & Trust
Too many parents don’t talk to their kids or don’t want to have these conversations with their kids, or they aren’t educated about it. They don’t understand social media or how apps work. When Michelle goes to do presentations, she tells the audience that first you have to talk to your kids. You want your kids to feel comfortable, and too many times kids aren’t comfortable. Kids have said at assemblies, “I don’t want to tell my mom because she’ll take away my phone.” So if someone is coming to them online trying to entice them, they don’t want to tell their parents because they know that their device will be taken away. That’s a mistake and we’ve found it out a number of times, that it’s not good to threaten our kids. It’s kind of a game we’re playing – Okay you can have this I trust you, nevermind I don’t. So, kids are losing that trust with their parents and they aren’t able to talk to them.
Parents need to explain what is inappropriate
A lot of parents don’t want to talk to their kids about what it looks like to have an inappropriate relationship with an adult or answer sexual questions. Well, we have to, because these guys and girls are more than willing to give them these answers. We’ve got to talk to them.
We want our kids to feel comfortable telling us if someone is trying to entice or groom them online without facing repercussions of their phone being taken away. Often they feel that their most important thing is their phone.
1 in 9 youths receive unwanted requests for sexual material from peers or adultsJOURNAL OF ADOLESCENT HEALTH, 2018
What age should we talk to our kids about internet safety?
A lot of people say “In elementary school, kids are too young and don’t need that conversation.” Yes, they do. Kids should know how to be safe once they begin using devices.
As soon as kids are picking up devices, phones, tablets, ipads, etc, they need that conversation.
Age 3: General Safety
Often at 3 years old, kids are picking devices up. At 3 years old we should talk about not trusting people we meet online, popups passwords, and all the protections including cautions about not posting personal info, so that the time that they are tweens/teens (~10 years old), we can talk about cyberbullying, sexting, internet predators, and posting inappropriate information.
THINK BEFORE YOU POST
When you put something out there, it’s gone, whether it be words or pictures. There are so many different ways predators can get to our kids. Unfortunately social media and the internet have made this easier.
2. Know the ins and outs of apps.
Parents need to look at apps. Apps are huge, that is what kids are using. Snapchat is their number one communication tool. They are using it to communicate not only with images and videos, but they are texting with it. Instead of calling, they are texting, and they are using Snapchat to communicate. What parents need to know is the risk associated with a lot of these apps. The risks associated with Snapchat are sexting, cyberbullying (which leads to suicides), and things like that. Parents need to look at these apps, download them, and understand how they work. They need to understand that if their child comes to them and says they want Instagram or Snapchat, they need to make sure to know how they work. If they don’t, they are not going to know the risks associated with them. If something inappropriate does happen, they need to feel comfortable going to a trusted adult, law enforcement, a teacher, parents, or someone else that they trust, so they will speak up before it gets too out of hand with sending images or videos. We want to nip it before that happens.
For a comprehensive list of resources for parents, go to AttorneyGeneral.utah.gov