If danger had a recipe, these ingredients spell trouble: vulnerable children, naive teenagers, predators, and a medium—the Internet—that readily connects them.
Parents have many concerns about their children's online safety—at the top of that list is whether their child is interacting with strangers, connecting with people they don’t know, or if they are sharing things that could negatively affect them in the future.
As the famous comic says, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Suffice to say because of the facade of a computer screen, it is often difficult to know who is at the other end of the Internet connection.
This can be particularly scary for parents, as children may not fully understand the dangers that lurk online. The sense of unknown is understandably very unsettling.
Recognizing predator behavior and understanding where they are go a long way to helping a family achieve its web safety goals. Knowing what information predators might look for is critical for parents learning how to protect children from online predators.
Therefore, we'll begin with the basics: who predators are, where they might be, what information they seek, and who they target. So let’s get started, shall we?
Who are predators?
Much like the offline world, parents worry about kids interacting with strangers when they are not around. However, unlike the offline world where they might wait for a victim at a zoo or park, online predators no longer have to worry about a parent or guardian accompanying the child or other people observing their suspicious behavior.
Parents walk a fine line, trying to install an appropriate level of concern without making their children fearful. The Internet has a lot to offer in terms of connecting children with their peers, but there is also a level of peer pressure around being online in the same places, regardless of their safety.
There are many groups of unscrupulous people that take advantage of this and commit crimes, including sexual abuse, financial and identity theft, cyber bullying and many more.
According to keepmychildsecure.com, there are four types of sexual predators parents need to watch out for:
- The Gatherer: someone gathering child photography or video pornography. The gatherer can become more dangerous as the obsession grows.
- The Producer: someone distributing child pornography to pedophiles. Children who have low insecurity are most vulnerable as the producer could target them to play as “actors” in their movies.
- The Talker: someone targeting potential victims in chat rooms, game forums and social media, taking the time to earn the child’s trust. These predators use their trust to engage in sexual talk and sometimes use webcams. This is the most common type of online predators.
- The Voyager: someone who builds a relationship with a victim and seek face-to-face meetings. When things turn south and the victim wants out of the relationship, the voyager often uses blackmail to keep the relationship going.
Where do they lurk?
Knowing where children hang out online is important, because that’s also where predators will lurk. Predators trawl the Internet for places where children and teenagers express themselves, searching for vulnerable or otherwise naive victims. And one thing is for sure: teens love social media.
Predators will attempt to contact children any way they can. The initial contact is usually through conversations, using whatever method is available or convenient.
These conversations can happen on social media, in chat rooms, at child celebrity websites, while playing video games, on message boards and forums, and can move quickly to instant messaging, texting and emails.
After initial contact, a predator (who may be an expert at manipulation) will attempt to develop an emotional connection with a child to get more information from them.
What information are predators looking for?
For online predators, a child’s personal information is a target and can be used to engage in identity theft, or even to stalk or establish a connection to gain trust.
Sadly, according to a recent report by CyLab, the rate of identity theft among children was 51 times higher than that among adults. The site familysafecomputers.org pointed out that predators could easily find information about potential victims since many naive children list personal information online with no regard for safety.
Once initial contact has been made, a predator will typically get to know the child to try to develop a friendship. Like a Trojan horse, only disguised as a new online “friend,” the predator is seeking vulnerabilities in the child’s character.
The reality is that most people—adults and children—have a unique character trait, which under certain circumstances and with manipulation by a predator, can be exploited.
For instance, some adults just can’t resist wiring money to that bank manager in Nigeria on the off chance they’re truly related to the dead beneficiary. Most vulnerable of all are children who may be comfortable using technology, but aren’t aware of the dangers.
In the realm of malware and phishing, naive children are also an easy target; they may not be as cautious about entering account information or downloading files.
If the child isn’t the only one to use the family computer, they could put a treasure trove of financial and personal data at risk.
Who is the most vulnerable?
Naive children and teenagers are especially vulnerable. Children of this age are beginning to discover their independence while trying to separate themselves from parental control.
Young teenagers are more likely to take risks or post personal information online without fully understanding the possible consequences, making them vulnerable to predators.
Even worse than posting personal information for anyone to see is the fact that many young teenagers will accept friend requests from complete strangers. This opens the lines of communication to a potential predator.
Even without ‘friending’ someone on Facebook, which allows access to the whole social profile, depending on the privacy settings, a lot of information is still public—the city they live in, the schools they attend, favorite music and TV shows—and naive teenagers often post this information for anyone to see.
What can parents do to protect their family online?
It is often said that conversations work better than rules. Parents should talk to their children about the dangers online, and explain how they will monitor their children’s Internet use along with online video gaming—areas where predators are increasingly looking for victims.
Parents should also understand that teens are not always honest about what they do online. Some kids will let their parents ‘friend’ them on Facebook, but then move on to another unmonitored social media site that is hidden from their parents.
The key is communication. Combine open dialogue with Internet security tools and comprehensive parental control software, like Intego’s ContentBarrier Secure X8, and parents can create a safe online experience for their children, regardless of a child’s age or technological know-how.
Now, that's what we call cyber savvy parenting.