The internet: Its given us the ability to know what the weather is like anywhere across the globe, to hitch a ride from a nearby driver, to listen to our favorite music or watch our favorite shows on demand, and even to video chat with loved ones thousands of miles away. Most people can agree that the onset of the digital age has done a lot of wonderful things for our world. But, as with all technology, the internet possesses the potential for danger—for us and for our children.
In other words, the internet is not a bad place, but the trust we put in it might be.
When I was 11 years old, I had the same problem as many kids my age: I was being bullied at school.
It was the dawn of the social media age and being a sneaky tween, I had a secret online profile on a hot new social networking site called Myspace. Although I intended for this platform to be a respite from my troubles, it quickly became a place where the school bullying could continue, even after the last bell rang.
One day after school, I was sitting at the family computer quietly crying about a nasty comment a “mean girl” had left on my profile, when a notification popped up. It was from a cute boy named Hayden and to my surprise, he was defending me!
Hayden told the girl that she didn’t know what she was talking about; that I was beautiful, that I was kind, that I was funny and…
The waterworks instantly shut off and my jaw hit the floor. Who was this knight in shining armor?
I clicked on his profile and to my pleasant surprise, Hayden appeared to be a handsome, charming, 13-year-old surfer boy who went to a middle school in a neighboring city. For all intents and purposes, this was 11-year-old Kelly’s version of the ultimate dreamboat.
I had never been the type to get attention from boys—especially not cute ones like Hayden! And not only was this boy giving me positive attention, he really seemed to care about my wellbeing. He was saving me from my tormentors and I could not be more enchanted.
It took me about five minutes of staring at the screen in disbelief before I mustered the courage to send him a private message, and even then, all I could think of to say was, “Hey! ☺”
In the moments before he replied, my imagination went wild. Who is this guy? How did he find me? When can we meet in person? Was this the beginning of the rest of my life? Was Hayden my soulmate? Would my wedding dress be white or cream?
Although my mind was reeling with thousands of scenarios in those few moments, I could have never imagined the reply I received.
It turns out my handsome knight was not a handsome knight at all. “Hayden” was a profile created by my protective older sister who was tired of watching her baby sister get bullied.
Although I was a little disappointed that all of my fantasies about having a handsome older boyfriend were no longer feasible, I was grateful for my sister’s sweet gesture and, as far as the kids at school were concerned, Hayden and I continued dating until his dad’s job got transferred to Colorado. (This conveniently occurred about two weeks after the bullying subsided).
Although this was the first time I was approached online by a stranger, it was certainly not the last. Over the proceeding years, getting messages from strangers became the norm for my friends and I. And although I had learned my lesson about talking to strangers online after my encounter with “Hayden,” I knew that not all of my peers were so lucky.
Today, I serve as the Internet Safety Specialist at Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization leading the fight to end child sex trafficking in the United States. And day after day, I hear horrendous stories of online child sexual exploitation and abuse that started out just like my interaction with Hayden:
- The child is lonely and yearns to be loved and accepted.
- They may be experiencing troubles at home or at school—and these troubles are often evident on their social media profiles.
- Suddenly, a stranger takes interest, giving them the online attention and love they crave.
- This person seems to truly understand them, even liking all the same things the child likes.
- They seem like the perfect best friend—or love interest.
In the case of children who are exploited, this is typically when the ongoing chatting begins and the relationship progresses. Eventually, trust is built and secrets are shared. The child feels closer to this predator than anyone else and becomes reliant on the relationship with them. Eventually, the predator uses this trust and reliance to coerce the child into pushing their sexual boundaries. This manifests with the child engaging in sexual conversation or even sharing sexual images of themselves.
From there, the perpetrator uses the trust they’ve built with the child, the secrets the child has shared, and the sexual content the child has entrusted to the predator to manipulate and coerce the child into doing whatever they want—including being sexually exploited (online or in person) for profit.
The hard truth is that technology, including social media, is widely viewed as responsible for the explosion of sex trafficking in the United States. Predators are luring child victims via tablets, phones, even video game consoles and e-sports. In these online venues, our children are being enticed, entrapped, and sold for sex. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (or NCMEC), there are 750,000 predators online worldwide at any given moment.
In fact, as the Internet Safety Specialist at Shared Hope International, I’ve experienced this predatory behavior firsthand. While researching commonly used mobile apps, I was solicited within minutes of creating a profile while posing as a 15-year old girl. I was sent pornographic images, was asked to remove my clothing, and, in one case, to meet up in person. Another predator groomed me with friendship over several days before his messages started to become sexually explicit. The profile picture he used was a photo of a puppy. Worse still, the solicitors were decades older.
For these reasons and so many more, Shared Hope International decided to launch an Internet Safety Initiative, creating free, downloadable resources to guide and empower parents as they protect their children from online predators. Along with an ongoing video series (including a video about my experience posing as a 15-year-old girl online) parents gain access to our Comprehensive Internet Safety Guide on Shared Hope’s Internet Safety Page. These resources cover topics such as parental control options, sexting, gaming safety, dangerous apps and conversation starters
If you think a child in your life might be communicating with an online predator, check out these warning signs:
- If they withdraw from family or friends
- If someone is sending them pornography
- If they are overly obsessed with being online
- If they hide their device screens from others
- If they receive expensive gifts from a friend you don’t know
- If they become upset when they don’t have Wi-Fi access or cell service
If you notice a child in your life exhibiting two or more of these signs, contact the NCMEC Cybertipline at 1-800-THE-LOST and your local law enforcement for help and support.
For more information on how to keep your kids safe from online predators, and to download Shared Hope’s free internet safety resources, visit sharedhope.org/internetsafety.