Keeping Your Child Safe Online During the Pandemic
Experts warn of increasing numbers of sexual predators preying on children.
Posted April 9, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
With the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, most children and teens are receiving their education online. Further, with a lack of options for socializing and entertainment, and parents trying to work from home, kids are logging many more hours on screens than normal.
Children spending large amounts of time online may increase their risk for being targeted by online predators. Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of the United Nations children’s branch—UNICEF—warned that “We’ve got a couple of worrying signs, which is that the online predators are really—they’re multiplying ... Because children are online more, they are vulnerable." The FBI has issued similar warnings about the increased risks from online sexual predators for children and teens during this COVID crisis.
Kids who have been socially isolated for over a month now may be particularly at risk as they are looking for social outlets and may be more likely to talk to strangers. Further, parents trying to work from home may have less time to devote to monitoring what their children are doing online. There are reports of online predators reaching out to minors through their social media platforms, and then engaging in grooming behaviors to get them to send nude or semi-nude images which are then shared on websites used by other predators. While parents have already instituted online safety guidelines for their children, there may be unique challenges and dangers that have arisen with the quarantine as parents want to balance between safety and isolation.
With many parents already feeling stressed and overwhelmed, what can be done to keep their kids safe online?
1. Have a discussion with your children about the dangers online. Many kids may not be aware of how dangerous engaging in online chats or sharing pictures with strangers can be. In some cases, the predators may even be people known to the child—so parents should discuss the dangers of sharing inappropriate pictures (also known as sexting) with anyone.
2. Remember that even if your child is not using social media, it doesn’t mean they are immune. Predators have been known to use online games that younger kids are playing, such as Fortnite which has both on-line voice and chat functions or Roblox which has the online chat function only. Most of these games have parental controls that can limit their ability to chat with strangers and block offensive and inappropriate contact for minors—however, part of the attraction in these times of isolation is that your child can play and talk with their friends online. If parents choose to leave the voice and chat function enabled, then talk to your child about not accepting strangers as friends and what to do if there is someone saying anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
3. As much as possible, have children use internet-enabled devices in common areas so that you have more of an opportunity to look and see what they are doing. This can prove to be difficult when everyone is on video calls for work and school—but when they are not engaged in schoolwork, try to keep children where they can be easily monitored.
4. A list of common apps and websites that are used by sexual predators can be found here. However, this list is by no means exhaustive and these apps and websites change frequently. Parents can check their children’s devices for these apps and either delete them if the app is not appropriate or poses too much of a risk, or have a discussion with them about some of the dangers of having the app on their device. Some apps, like TikTok, are on the list and are currently very popular with young people. Given the lack of ability to be social outside the home, parents need to balance concerns about safety and emotional well-being. While deleting the app may be more prudent with younger children, monitoring online activity and having discussions about the risks and how to handle them may be an option with teens.
These are challenging times for us all and they may be especially hard on children and teens who are separated from their friends and activities. With increased internet usage comes an increased risk of encountering sexual predators online. However, the most important thing for parents to do is to have open and honest discussions with their children about their risks online, do what they can to minimize the risks using parental controls and software, teach their children how to handle dangers if they experience them, and be understanding of the balance between children’s need to be connected during this uncertain time and the need for safety.
For more information, see: Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting you child from sexual abuse: What you need to know to keep your kids safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.