Has a stranger tried to contact your child online? Probably. What you need to know to keep your kids safe

Kids are more tech-savvy than ever and there are also more tech dangers than ever before. Even if you think you are taking the right steps to keep your kids safe, we’ve found if they are online there probably is a way predators can get to your kids. We want to help you fight back.

Young kids targeted online

Our children, like it or not, are practically wired to their devices. From cellphones to tablets they are literally growing up on the internet. But all of that connectivity also brings concerns for parents.

“It is horrifying to think that your 14-year-old daughter can get messages from strangers,” says Katy mom Lisa Owen.

“I can’t even talk, I mean my hands were shaking. These men wanted to kidnap my daughter,” said Houston mom Staci Henderson.

Lisa Owen and Staci Henderson are both dedicated moms, working hard to keep their children safe online. Yet both have had frightening experiences with their own kids being targeted online.

Lisa scans through all the social media accounts for both of her daughters, 12-year-old Audra and 14-year-old Olivia. Her fears crystallized after a complete stranger contacted Olivia on Instagram, asking her to send him naked pictures of herself.

“And then he messaged again and said, ‘Do you send?’ And I had no idea what that meant, but it means do you send nudes,” Lisa explains. “Asking ‘Do you send’ means do you send nudes.”

For Staci, it was far more serious and wound up with eight men going to prison.

“It was a group of I believe it was eight men and they went online and they targeted certain children, one of whom was my daughter,” said Staci.

In Staci’s case, her 12-year-old daughter became friends on Instagram with someone posing as a teenage girl. It turned out that the girl was actually a gang of sexual predators who planned to kidnap her at a public park.

“They wanted to meet and kidnap some of the children. It wasn’t just my daughter, this was a large group of children,” said Staci. “I think they asked for photos from almost all of them and they sold them on the internet.”

Houston woman on a mission

The internet is a huge way sex traffickers target women and children. Human-trafficking advocate Jacquelyn Aluotto has a passion for helping women and children. She created a company called Real Beauty Real Women - a place where beauty and activism meet social responsibility. While creating a well-known platform that stands up for women and children, Jacquelyn has also worked on changing legislation for sex trafficking. She tells us anyone is a potential target.

“They want to meet your child, have sex with your child and a lot of times abduct them, so you will never see them again,” explains Aluotto.

They start small and earn trust.

“Predators will come in and pretend they are other children and they will say, ‘Hey we’ll send you some money, but take a picture of yourself.’ So, at first it’s just a regular picture, then it’s a show me your bra and panties and then it’s show me a picture of yourself naked,” she explains.

How are predators targeting your kids?

This starts early. The average age of trafficking victim is 12 years old. We teach our kids not to talk to strangers and you might even set restrictions on devices. This often isn’t enough. Aluotto explained how internet predators “groom” kids.

“If I’m a boy and I’m playing Fortnite and I don’t have the money in the game to buy the things that I need, a lot of times predators will come in and pretend they are other children and they will say, 'Hey, we will send you money but take a picture of yourself,’” Aluotto said.

These online predators slowly get to know kids and make them feel like they are friends and they can be trusted.

“The biggest thing about predators is they learn what your vulnerabilities are,” Aluotto explains. “If I’m a boy or a girl, and I’m on the internet and my parents are getting a divorce, my grandma just died, I’m getting bullied at school, I feel fat, a predator’s job is to study and learn what that is. They learn what the vulnerabilities are and they contact the person.”

3 ways to protect your kids from internet predators

There are steps you can take to help protect your kids while they are online. Aluotto recommends three crucial things every parent must do now to protect their children.

  • Start looking at everything your children are sending and receiving on social media. Aluotto says every single day you should check their devices and monitor who they were talking to on the internet. Check sent messages and check deleted content too. You can never be too nosy when it comes to your kids.
  • Add an extra layer of security. Download powerful child internet security apps like Bark, Net Nanny, and Life360 which track your kids. These parental control apps can keep up with every place your child has been. You can also use the apps to block certain content or to set time restrictions on internet use.
  • Turn off location on devices. Aluotto says you don’t ever want someone online to know where your kids are. This also includes when posting on social media and tagging locations, or posting identifiable places they frequent like the ballpark or dance studio. This is giving predators a roadmap for where they can find your kids in person.

Predators also using fake apps

These predators are not just using social media to get to kids. Your kids may download games and apps without knowing what they are actually allowing on their devices. These child sex predators have even gone as far as creating their own online games to attract unsuspecting kids. One group actually copied a popular Disney game featuring penguins and filled it with sexual images. Disney forced that game to shut down.

To help combat this problem, you can set your devices so your child has to ask for approval before downloading apps. Check reviews for apps and games and make sure they look legit.

Has my child already been targeted?

Aluotto says chances are, your child has come across something inappropriate online. She says don’t be afraid to talk openly with your kids about this.

“You need to ask your child if they are you being sexually active or have done sexting or have you send naked pictures of yourself?”

If you notice your children are different or they are isolating themselves, act fast.

“When your child completely changes, starts isolating themselves from people - changing their group of friends or people they felt comfortable with,” explains Aluotto. “Or spending a lot of time by themselves, no longer communicating with their family or parents. Once you start seeing those you have to start taking notice.”

Staci gives advice from her experience too. She says parents should never ignore any red flags they may notice.

“I noticed she was talking to this one girl who was several years older than her, did not live in the same state,” said Henderson. “It looked legit to me and I let it go, never said anything to my daughter about it.”

Henderson has made changes to the rules about social media.

“My children are not allowed to befriend anyone they have not met in person,” she explains. “So, I go on and I say have you met this person, met this person.”

There are signs to look out for in your child, to see if they are communicating with someone they should not be online. The Bark app mentioned above is a great resource for information, including this article with advice about how to talk to your kids about internet predators. Our experts say even if you think you are doing enough, because of the way the internet works you need to always be updating what you know all of the time. Together we can protect our children!

About the Authors:

Emmy-winning investigative reporter, insanely competitive tennis player, skier, weightlifter, crazy rock & roll drummer (John Bonham is my hero). Husband to Veronica and loving cat father to Bella and Meemo.

Award-winning TV producer and content creator. My goal as a journalist is to help people. Faith and family motivate me. Running keeps me sane.