The Hidden Dangers Kids Face Online
Get home from school, check Facebook, look at your friends’ stories on Snapchat. For many kids, this is their reality. In my day it was get home from school, power up the PC, and the surf the web. I grew up in the 2000s, an era when the Internet was just taking off. I remember surfing Myspace with my friend Nicole and watching YouTube videos in 2005. By that time, 91% of kids would be online (Whitaker and Bushman, 2017). Parents were up in arms about pedophiles surfing Myspace and YouTube (Chris Hansen, anybody?). These days, not much has changed. Online predators still lurk. They just have more platforms to choose from. Kids on YouTube run the risk of stumbling onto dangerous videos, in a phenomenon called ElsaGate. And finally, scammers and hackers alike prey on vulnerable kids in an attempt to steal personal information.
Let’s start with the obvious—and scariest one: child predators. On chatrooms, social media sites, and even child friendly games like WebKinz, predators are everywhere. They take advantage of children and teens. They often seek out the most vulnerable ones, too—kids with single moms, teenagers looking to fit in, etc. Online predators use two main tactics to target children: sexual solicitation and exposure to pornography (Whitaker and Bushman 2017). Sexual solicitation is talking about, or convincing kids to perform sex acts. This happened to me on YouTube. A predator took advantage of my naiveite regarding sexual matters. Both of us exchanged sexually explicit messages. I’m not the only one. 19% of kids will experience some form of solicitation (Whitaker and Bushman, 2017). This goes hand in hand with exposure to pornography. Predators often send kids explicit photos. Predators use the fact that 30% of content on the Internet is pornography (Bell, 2017). According to Steve Bell of Bullguard.com, kids may stumble on pornography because they have family or school problems, things predators use to lure in kids. Whether accidentally or by way of a predator, 22% of children are under the age of ten and a child’s first exposure is 11 years old (Bell, 2017)! Parents should leave the computer in a common area of the house and monitor their children’s’ conversations. Kids should report any explicit pictures sent to them to parents or school officials.
In our decade, it’s not uncommon for little ones to use tablets to watch YouTube videos. Videos can be educational and parents and kids can bond while watching them. However, a disturbing new trend is emerging on YouTube. Inappropriate videos are being disguised as children’s videos in what’s been dubbed ElsaGate. Many of the videos feature Elsa, from Frozen, hence the name. Spider-Man, Minnie Mouse, and Peppa Pig also make appearances. Laura June describes one such video. Her child watched it, assuming it was Peppa Pig. However, it showed Peppa Pig getting her teeth pulled at the dentist. These videos feature disturbing themes such as suicide, rape, abortions, and gross sexual fetishes and procedures involving syringes. The manufacturers of these videos use bright colors and the above-mentioned characters to trick children into watching them. The animation is just close enough to the real thing so kids and parents won’t be suspicious. They’re even bypassing YouTube Kids, the supposedly “safe” alternative. June says, “the animation was close enough to looking like Peppa” (Sudebar and Yates 2017). So, for example, little kids think they’re watching a Minnie Mouse cartoon. Then halfway through, it cuts to Minnie blowing her brains out. Exactly why this is happening remains a mystery. Some people (like people on the subreddit r/elsagate) point to pedophiles trying to normalize demented sexual tendencies. Some people say it’s pranksters who get their rocks off traumatizing kids and parents (Satherly, 2017). Others, like YouTuber Tim Woods believe it’s a way of generating ad revenue. According to Woods, “the videos are likely created by computers with very little human input” (Satherly, 2017). In other words, it’s all made by a computer. Whatever the reason, parents need to remain extra cautious. They should not leave their children alone with tablets and monitor what they are watching. They can create playlists to reduce the chances of running into these videos.
Finally, scammers and other nefarious people work 24/7 to get information. Because kids don’t understand social boundaries, it is easier for scammers and hackers to get personal information. (Kaspersky). They simply don’t understand that certain information needs to be kept private. This is a scammer or hacker’s dream, which is why parents need to sit down with their children and stress the importance of privacy. To begin with, children need to be taught to be suspicious of any links that appear to come from a “friend.” Their account may have been compromised. By opening that link, kids risk downloading malware and getting hacked. The hack may be annoying at best (they send the same video to all their friends), or at worse, steal valuable information like their Social Security Number. They also need to be taught that no legitimate company is ever going to ask for their information via e-mail or text message. Finally, older kids (particularly high school kids) are in danger of being recruited into Multi-Level Marketing schemes. These schemes are nothing more than pyramid schemes. They trick you into buying and selling the product to family and friends. The end goal is to recruit others into the scheme. The subreddit r/antimlm has a host of stories about high school kids being targeted by Vector Marketing and other similar companies. They prey on the fact that high school graduates usually look for summer jobs. Kids should be aware that no legitimate company will ever ask you to pay to start working there. And, most jobs don’t contact you first. You have to go to them.
The Internet is growing and continues to grow. However, with more growth comes more danger. From demented YouTube videos to predatory schemes, bad people are just itching to get a hold of kids. As Spiderman says, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Kids should be responsible with their Internet usage and parents should monitor their children. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.