- Sexual predators learn how to spot a child's vulnerabilities.
- Teaching children about chancy online encounters provides a layer of safety but requires informed vigilance.
- Take time to understand the online world in which your children are interacting.
In November, Austin Lee Edwards, a twenty-eight-year-old sheriff’s deputy, used the fake online persona of a teenage boy to catfish a fifteen-year-old girl in California.
He bought and prepared a house for secrecy, then set out to bring her there. In the process, he murdered her mother and grandparents. He’s just one of many predators using social media to locate and manipulate prey. They seek kids they can maneuver into compliance. But while they watch for prey, you can be watching for them.
Predators look for certain types of traits and behaviors in their target victims. Repeated patterns—contextual cueing—improve their perceptual efficiency. It becomes automatic. Some get very good at it. They know that children are often oblivious to being watched, are vulnerable to enticements, and can be persuaded to think an encounter is safe.
Researcher Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at University College in London asked test subjects to estimate the likelihood of some event happening to them. After they were told the actual chances, adolescents shifted their ideas as well as adults but failed to apply them: They knew an act was risky but didn’t think the possible consequences related to them.
The Internet has provided even more ways for predators to approach. According to a fifty-year review, methods and enticements are the same as always. Only the timing and level of accessibility have differed (Ringenberg et al., 2022).
Whether online or off, predators test for “soft limits” or things to which kids might respond, even if it seems dicey. They know kids want to be considered grown-up or “cool,” so they might cooperate in activities for which they haven’t established clear rules. Teens are just beginning to develop a story for their lives. Their identity is vulnerable to influence, especially for things that seem novel or exciting. If they think the predator offers something they want, whether it’s money, status, sexual partners, access to drugs, or just a more interesting life, they might yield.
Most typically, the predator starts with a test, like an explicit story or joke. If the child responds positively, the predator might offer alcohol or drugs. Many teens will want to see what that’s like. If they comply, they’ve shown they’re willing to break the law. It’s not a serious law. No one’s getting hurt. So they’ll do it. Or they might just agree to an offline meeting. The soft limits have been breached. That’s the predator’s foot in the door.
What the Offenders Say
In 1989, Jon Conte's research team invited 20 male sex offenders in a community treatment program to describe how they’d targeted, recruited, and maintained a sexual abuse situation with a child. The study might seem dated, but their comments still apply.
Most of these men believed they had a special ability to spot a vulnerable child. They used incremental sexualization to prepare the child. They were most attracted to friendly kids, which suggested trust, but some looked for needy kids. “Look for some kind of deficiency.”
The offenders also evaluated children for those who seemed likely to keep a secret, usually because they were socially isolated or seemed desperate for guidance or company. Thus, they’d do something that gained them advice or a friend: “Use love as a bait,” one man said, and “Show the kid extra attention.” The opening strategy was usually verbal seduction. “Get on their level, ask how their day was going, what did they like?”
Given the right bait, even kids who’ve been repeatedly warned can still be lured if the predator can make the situation seem safe. Often, the kids know their abuser from some other context.
The best strategy involves a mix of vigilance and awareness:
1. Teach kids about grooming behavior and the importance of telling someone if it happens. Be open to those who try to say they’re in trouble. They might not know quite how to reveal it or might describe something that’s difficult to believe, but it’s important to take them seriously. Listen!
2. Address the topic of harmful secrets and explain that responsible adults would not ask children to do this. Make sure children know they can confide in their parents or guardians if someone—even a trusted friend—asks them to do something that disturbs them.
3. Discuss the concepts of respect, consent, and gut feeling so children clearly understand when someone has crossed a line–even someone who seems okay. Kids should also understand that they can withdraw consent at any time. They're allowed to change their minds.
4. As daunting as this might be, take time to understand the online world in which your children are interacting. This is the primary place where predators contact them. They anticipate that parents will be too busy or clueless to do much more than check in now and then.
Kids who become intensely involved with individuals in online spaces might be getting baited, and a predator will encourage them to hide the relationship. Learn about apps that offer ways to keep tabs, such as Microsoft Family Safety and Google Family Link. Attend programs offered to teach parents about Internet safety.
5. Realize that grooming often starts in the presence of parents in order to normalize it for the targeted child. Katz and Barnetz (2015) investigated grooming in a sample of 95 children, five to 13 years old. They found that 68.4 percent of victims reported that their abuser had manipulated their family members. And predators can be female as well. Be careful of assumptions.
Predators prefer kids who won’t give them trouble; arm your child to do just that.
Berliner, L. (2018). The concept of grooming and how it can help victims. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(1), 24-27. doi:10.1177/0886260517742057
Blakemore, S-J. (2018) Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. Doubleday.
Conte, J. R., Wolf, S. & Smith, T. (1989). What sexual offenders tell us about prevention strategies. Child Abuse and Neglect, 13, 293-301.
Katz, C., & Barnetz, Z. (2015). Children’s narratives of alleged child sexual abuse offender behaviors and the manipulation process. Psychology of Violence, 6, 223-232. doi:10.1037/a0039023.
Ringenberg, T. R., Seigfried-Spellar, K. C., Rayz, J. M., & Rogers, M. K. A scoping review of grooming strategies: Pre- and post-Internet. Child Abuse and Neglect. 123 (2022)
Van Dam, C. (2001). Identifying child molesters: Preventing child sexual abuse by recognizing the patterns of the offenders. Rouledge.