Your child has a smart phone, a laptop, a tablet and total use of the home computer. Having a child who’s online almost always isn’t exactly far from the norm. Roughly 24 percent of all children ages 13 to 17 go online “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center. And, that doesn’t mean the rest of those teens aren’t going online. Fifty-six percent of teens are online “several” times a day and 12 percent are on the Internet once daily. So, what are our children doing online? For the most part, using social media. With that in mind, understanding and identifying the ways that online predators approach victims is absolutely essential for both kids and parents.
Pretending to be a child
It’s not likely that a 12-year-old is going to get into a conversation with someone they know is 52. Your child can’t seem to stomach hanging out with you and your family friends (the grown-up ones). So, why would she willingly chat up someone else who according to her own words is “ancient”?
Online predators understand this, and do everything they can to trick children into thinking they’re kids too. This means creating fake accounts and profiles. Not only do these predators create fake social media profile, they also tend to populate the accounts with detailed information – creating an entirely new persona.
Let’s say Jeff is a 50-year-old accountant for Tucson. He may call himself Cole and say he’s a 13-year-old middle school student. When he approaches a child, he approaches them as Cole. By the way, ‘Cole’ will likely have a profile that includes photos of a young teenage boy to add a concretely real aspect – even though it’s all fake. Those pictures are probably downloaded from another account or taken from elsewhere on the Internet.
Acting slightly older
While an all-out adult isn’t of much interest to a child or teen, someone who is a year (or a few) older is. Online predators may approach their victims as more mature or a-few-grades-ahead kids. The lure of a slightly older, more mature teen is a major draw for some children (especially tween and teen girls).
When your 13-year-old daughter suddenly sees that John (a supposed high school junior) is interested, she feels special. The boys in her seventh grade class seem like – well, little boys. That is, in comparison to John, the high schooler (who is really 37). This type of thinking makes it easier for predators to entice children and get them interested.
Getting geographically specific
When a predator approaches a child they may pretend to live nearby. Maybe not in your town. But, in a town or city that’s close enough for your child to eventually go to. It’s pretty obvious that the fake profile person doesn’t go to your child’s school. If the predator claimed to live in the same immediate area, the child could quickly debunk their profile myth as fake. So, the predator says that they live in the next town over or somewhere that’s half an hour away.
Your child doesn’t know everyone (or anyone for that matter) who goes to the school district two towns over. That makes it completely possible that this person is real. And, not only are they real, but it would be fairly easy to meet up (which may appeal to your child).
How does the predator know to create a fake profile that lives within miles of your home? Your child may have her hometown listed in her own social media profile. Or, she might have her school listed. If she doesn’t (or you won’t allow her do to this), she might have repeatedly ‘checked-in’ to places locally or have pictures of herself wearing clothes with a school, city or sports team logo.
“But mommmmm! Allie’s friends with him too. So why can’t I talk to him?” That’s an argument that starts with an online predator friending groups of children to make individual members feel safe. These adults often friend several kids who are connected in some way. Maybe they all go to school together, engage in the same after-school activity or play the same online video game. Whatever the connection, when a predator infiltrates the group they gain access to all of the members.
Approaching a child online as a friend of a friend creates a sense of comfort and familiarity, even though it’s a completely false sense. The child may feel like it’s safe to talk to this person (or even meet them) if their classmates are already friends with them.
Interesting and interested adults
Not every predator will approach a child as another child. Even though there is a definite popularity in acting as a child, some adults come at kids online as actual grown-ups. So, you’re saying, “Why would my child want to talk to an adult online?”
In some cases a young adult (early 20s) is appealing to a teen. This is the “I’m just a little bit older than you” idea to an extreme. Other times the adult approaches the child as trusted grown-up such as a friend of the family, relative or a teacher. Less often (but it still happens) the adult may contact the child with a fake “manager” or “talent scout” profile. Think back to your childhood. There were always stories going around about in-person predators acting as modeling scouts and approaching young girls at malls or other public places. This is the high-tech version of that predatory scheme.