5 Experts Share How Predators Entice Teens and Tweens Online

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August 5, 2021

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5 Experts Share How Predators Entice Teens and Tweens Online an Expert Guest Blog by SmartSocial.com

Some predators are obvious when they are trying to lure a teen into doing something they don’t want to, but many are cunning and play the slow game to manipulate teens. Some predators pose as teenagers, lend a listening ear, and the trouble is, they’re everywhere these days. It doesn’t matter what apps your teens are on nor what privacy settings they have, predators almost always find a way to communicate with teens and tweens online.

Students and parents often think “it can’t happen to me”, but unfortunately, that’s not realistic any more. We asked 5 experts to share from their experiences how predators communicate with teens, how they entice teens and tweens to share things they wouldn’t normally share, and tips for how adults can talk to their teens about what to do if they find themselves in a blackmail situation.

1. Understand the process of how predators turn an innocent teen into a victim

Elizabeth Jeglic, Professor of Psychology, John Jay College

Elizabeth Jeglic
Elizabeth Jeglic

Online sexual abuse is a serious global problem. Recent research shows that one in five youth will be sexually solicited by an adult stranger online and there is evidence that those numbers have increased during the pandemic. What is most worrisome is that 9% of the minors in our study went on to meet the adult stranger in person, and of those, more than half engaged in physical sexual contact.

However, not all perpetrators want to meet the child in person, and many will solicit nude or semi-nude pictures of the child that will be used as child sexual abuse material. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reviews more than 25 million images each year, identifying more than 18,900 victims. Alarmingly, the number of reports of online enticement has doubled from 2019 to 2020.

Predators are contacting minors online through social media, online gaming communities, messaging apps, and live-streaming platforms. It is estimated that up to two-thirds of the online sexual solicitation of minors involves sexual grooming.

Sexual grooming is the deceptive process by which a would-be abuser, prior to the commission of sexual abuse, selects a victim, gains access to the minor, develops trust and forms a relationship with the minor, and desensitizes the minor to sexual content. Post-abuse, the offender may engage in maintenance strategies to facilitate future sexual abuse and/or prevent disclosure.

While there are many similarities between in-person and online grooming, there are unique characteristics of the online environment that impact the nature of the grooming behaviors.

Similar to in-person sexual grooming, there are various stages that have been proposed to describe the process of online sexual grooming:

Common Steps of Sexual Grooming:

Stage one: victim selection 

In the first stage of online grooming, the perpetrator selects a potential victim. Perpetrators will often lurk in the online environment, examining profiles, social media pictures, conversations, and usernames prior to making contact.

Victims are then selected based upon their appeal to the perpetrator (could be based upon physical attractiveness, gender, age) and the ease of access (privacy settings disabled or inadequately set). There is some evidence that perpetrators tend to select victims who are located geographically close to them so that it is possible to meet in person. One study found that perpetrators chose victims based upon their perceived vulnerabilities (low self-esteem, little supervision, naivety, etc.) and the presence of sexual content on their social media, username, or profile.

Stage two: gaining access

Once potential victims are selected, the perpetrator will attempt to make contact with the minor. Given the nature of the internet, a perpetrator will often attempt to make contact with multiple potential victims at once to see who responds.

They will quickly share information about name, age, gender, and location and ask the child to share a picture so they can ensure they are communicating with a minor. Interestingly, most online predators do not hide the fact that they are adults, and only a minority will pose as other children online.

Stage three: trust development/relationship formation 

In this next stage, the perpetrator works to form a relationship with the potential victim, pretending to share interests with the minor and empathizing with them about issues in their home or personal life. They will attempt to serve as an understanding confidante, and especially in the case of teenagers, may try to engage the vulnerable teen in a romantic “dating” relationship.

Stage four: predator desensitizes minor to sexual content/risk assessment 

In this stage, sexual content is gradually introduced. This may range from mildly suggestive to overt requests.

This is where the perpetrator is gauging whether the minor will cooperate with their grooming efforts and if the minor will send pictures or agree to meet in person. They are also assessing the risk of parental detection and may ask the minor targeted questions about parental monitoring of online activity.

Stage five: post-abuse maintenance/damage limitation

Once the minor has either sent a picture or met the perpetrator in person, the perpetrator will do one of two things. If they want to continue the abuse or get more images, they will use various techniques such as praise, threats of relationship abandonment/loss, or disclosure to parents to maintain secrecy. However, if the perpetrator has achieved their abusive goal (i.e. received pictures and/or abused minor in person), they may use the “hit and run” tactic, where they simply cease all communication and contact with the minor.

Short of preventing minors from ever accessing the internet (which in this day and time is impossible), there will always be risks when a child is using internet-enabled devices.

Here's how to minimize the risks:

1. Teach teens to never share pictures with a stranger

Talk to students of all ages about online dangers. Explain that while social media, chatrooms, and online gaming can be fun, they also have risks. Teach students to never share their name, age, or location with anyone, and explain why this is the case.

Further, minors should know that under no circumstance should they ever share a picture of themselves, as this is a key strategy that perpetrators use when attempting to contact minors. They should also learn and understand that it is never OK to chat with an adult online, and under no circumstance should they ever agree to meet in person.

In addition to having these rules established, it is important for parents to explain the rationale behind the rules so that children can learn to think critically about potentially dangerous or risky situations on their own.

2. Help teens recognize red flags and keep the lines of communication open 

Always let your students know that they should tell you, or another trusted adult, if someone online is doing something to make them feel uncomfortable and that you will be there to help and support them. Knowing that perpetrators will turn the conversation to sexual content almost immediately, minors must recognize this as a red flag and know to discontinue the conversation and tell you as soon as this happens.

The most important thing that adults can do is to let their students know that they will not be in trouble even if they have already chatted or shared photos with someone.

3. Check every app or games’ privacy settings

Make sure that privacy settings on all games, social media platforms, and apps are set to the highest level (use the SmartSocial.com parent app guides and VIP courses to learn about different app settings). If teens are using social media, their sites should be private so that only those in their inner circle have access. For gaming, enable parental controls so that your student cannot text or communicate with strangers.

4. Monitor what they are doing 

Have your student use internet-enabled devices in common areas so that you can keep an eye on what is going on. If your child is having private conversations in their bedroom, you want to make sure you know who they are communicating with.

5. Create a family smart device and social media agreement BEFORE there’s a problem

Have user agreements or contracts with your students for their phones and other internet-enabled devices. It is key that you have all your children’s passwords and let them know that you will periodically be monitoring their online communications as a condition of use. (Read more about Why Every Family Needs a Social Media Agreement.)

6. Encourage sleep and avoid prime hours of predator contact

Do not allow internet-enabled devices in bedrooms at night. While you may permit the use of phones and laptops in their rooms during the day, these devices should be returned to a common area at night for recharging. This not only promotes healthy sleep habits, but our research also found that most online solicitation of minors takes place after 11 p.m. when parents are not around to monitor.

2. Fake friendships are easily created online 

Ben Hartwig, Web Operations Executive, Info Tracer

Ben Hartwig
Ben Hartwig

With the world going full digital today, it is important to be careful on how you navigate the web, especially if you're a tween or teen.

Predators can take on any form online to start grooming their potential targets: from a person of the same age in need of love to someone posing as a caring shoulder to cry on, and even a long-lost childhood friend from kindergarten/school. Some conversation openers might include: a mention that they might have bumped into each other somewhere, have multiple common friends, or a generic compliment to one of the victim's public photos. 

With almost all social apps having a direct messaging system, it is very easy for predators to reach out to unknowing teens or tweens and start their friendship.

After the fake friendship is established and groundless trust is gained, sensitive content might come into play and that is when the blackmail starts. A racy shared image, a deep secret, or some financial information that predators can use to report their victims to their parents or the authorities are some forms of blackmail utilized by these online criminals.

It can happen to anyone, and it is up to tweens, teens, and parents to be up-to-date with this unfortunate phenomenon and know how to avoid it through simple steps and other online tools/resources such as guides, informational vlogs, and other public information tools that reveal a person's true identity.

3. Many predators disguise themselves as another teen to gain trust

Alex J. Packer, Ph.D., Psychologist, Educator, and Author

Alex J. Packer
Alex J. Packer

Online predators are a 21st-century addition to the advice of never getting in a car with a stranger. Predators can lurk anywhere—social media, video games, chat rooms—on any app, in any disguise. The disguise they adopt typically relates to their goal or is a response to what they learn about the teen from viewing their social media accounts. If they are seeking nude photos or videos from teens, they may pose as a teen to gain trust, since an adult asking for photos would be more likely to raise alarms. If they detect loneliness, vulnerability, or “neediness,” they may pose as a supportive adult. 

Since there are so many variables, the best steps adults can take would be to alert teens to the threats, teach them the warning signs that they may be in the sights of an online predator, and show them the measures they can take to protect themselves. As a psychologist and educator, I am going to focus on some of the psychological manipulations predators use to till the soil for the “ask.”

Depending on a predator’s ultimate goal, they may use some or all of these tactics to groom their target. 

What online predators do to entice teens and tweens: 

  • They validate your feelings and choices
  • They are attentive and supportive and willing to take time to chat
  • They compliment you and may offer gifts 
  • They express sympathy for your problems
  • They make you feel valued and listened to
  • They portray your friendship as special, rare, and something to be kept secret
  • They seem to share many of your interests and experiences as if they already know you (possibly from having studied your social media accounts or those of your friends)
  • They appeal to your healthy desire for approval, closeness, and companionship
  • They encourage you to listen only to them and may try to drive a wedge between you and your parents, teachers, and/or friends by saying your parents don’t understand you, your teachers don’t know what they’re talking about, and your friends will be jealous if you tell them you have a special relationship
  • They hold out promises of adventures, trips, and things you can do together
  • They exploit your natural and healthy curiosity about sex
  • They slowly introduce sex into your conversations and may expose you to pornography
  • They ask you to send revealing photos or film a sex act
  • If you refuse right from the start, they will threaten to expose any secrets you’ve already revealed, or sexual communications you may have had 
  • If you do send sexual photos or videos, they’ll blackmail you so that you keep sending them
  • They push you to meet in person (if that is their goal)

If you do not comply with their demands, threats tend to be psychologically, emotionally, and/or physically violent: They threaten that they will tell your parents, teachers, and/or school; they will post your messages, emails, photos, or videos online; they will harm—kill, even—your parents, siblings, friends, pets.

The best way for teens to ensure that they don’t get snared by a predator is to be cautious about any new online friendship, to maintain anonymity, to guard their privacy, and to be alert to the warning signs. 

Of course, where it gets tricky is that many people in, say, a chat group, might provide them with validation, support, and kindness. It doesn’t mean they’re predators. They might be wonderful souls. But if it’s a group for people who are, say, into a certain video game, and then the person asks you what you’re wearing, well, that might be a clue that something else is going on.

If teens begin to get creepy vibes, teens should:

  • Honor your intuition. Bleep the creep
  • Document everything by taking screenshots and saving messages. This could prove essential in any investigation or prosecution, and in getting a social media site to flag or delete the person
  • Immediately tell a trusted adult. Too many teens keep what’s going on a secret. That’s too heavy a burden for any teen to bear alone
  • Get the help you need to block the person, report the person, and deal with your feelings and the situation. Most importantly, know that, even if things went too far, even if you said things you wish you hadn’t, even if you sent photos or videos, there is help

4. Predators are on every app and website that features private or even public chat rooms

Paul Bischoff, Privacy Advocate with Comparitech

Paul Bischoff
Paul Bischoff

Predators might pose as their victim's peer, a romantic or sexual interest, or an authority figure.

Predators will use any app that allows them to both find victims and privately communicate with them. Most social networks meet this description, as do online video games, forums, and chat rooms. A predator might try to move the conversation to a more private messaging app, such as Kik, once they've hooked a victim.

Predators will eventually ask victims for compromising materials or information. These might be photos, admissions of guilt, or sexts, for example. The predator will then extort the victim for money or intimate photos, threatening to expose the blackmail to their parents or friends if they don't pay up.

My advice to parents is to join the same social networks so they can follow and friend their kids. This allows parents to monitor their kids from a safe distance, and kids will be less likely to take risks if they know their parents are watching. You can also sit down with your kids and adjust your privacy settings together, explaining why they are important. For younger students, I recommend also adding parental monitoring software. This allows parents to monitor and restrict internet usage.

5. Teens fear being blamed as a victim 

Eleanor Bennett, Artist & Advocate

Eleanor Bennett

One of the most common reasons that teenagers may worry about being open with their guardians after getting a message that is explicit or gives off bad vibes is slut-shaming and victim-blaming lecturing directed from the adult to the teen instead of the criticism being directed solely at the predator.

To protect your teens and tweens adults need to make sure that your teen knows that predators act in this way to show power, take control, and cause humiliation. The only way to make the internet safer is to make sure your teen knows that they will be listened to by you and not immediately be scorned because they can't control the external actions of a bad person who tries to prey on them.

Another insight that I had was there are quite a few individuals who may pose as being both hyper-aware of social issues and overly empathetic. I often saw these people often get in trouble (sometimes only a matter of months later after their rise to popularity) for sending inappropriate messages to minors.

Teach teens that no matter what platform, always be hyper-aware of someone trying to win your trust too much. Personally, I've never met someone trustworthy try to ingratiate themselves to me by saying “trust me;” it feels like forced familiarity and sets off suitably loud alarm bells in my head.

The last tip I will add is that platforms that don't force you to have a personal profile picture of yourself, your age, and gender explicitly displayed may be more neutral to communicate on. If someone can't tell personal attributes of other users may be somewhat camouflaged, but again, this is just a tip, not a rule, so focus mainly on making sure open communication is encouraged in your household as a priority.

Listen to tips from the FBI from the MomTalk podcast

Conclusion

Have an open and honest conversation with your teens about what predators are looking for online. Let them know that no matter how bad the situation gets, that they can come to you for help without judgment. So often, teens don’t speak up because they are embarrassed by the relationship they built with a predator.


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