How to Protect Your Kids From Online Predators: A Parent Guide

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How to Protect Your Child From Online Predators: A Quick Guide

In 2021, the Internet Watch Foundation reported 252,000 URLs with photos or videos of sexually abused children. The highest numbers the organization has seen, to date.

With kids spending more and more time online than ever before, online predators are using social media sites and other platforms to find and abuse children.

Here’s how you can prevent online predators from harming your child: 

  1. Talk to your child early and often
  2. Explain the risks of online predators and sharing sexual content online
  3. Point out places where child groomers and predators hide online
  4. Set up boundaries
  5. Keep the conversation going with your kid

For more information on how to protect your child from online predators and child groomers and what to do if your child is a victim, read our full article below.

Sexual exploitation of a child by online predators is any parent’s worst nightmare. In 2021, the Internet Watch Foundation reported 252,000 URLs with photos or videos of sexually abused children — the highest amount ever recorded.

COVID-19 restrictions played a large part in this because people were spending a lot more time online. This is a serious issue and one that requires parents to talk to their kids.

Now more than ever, parents must educate themselves about the risks of online grooming and predators. Then, you can start talking to family about online safety for children and how to prevent becoming a victim of online sexual abuse.


What is Online Sexual Abuse?

What is online sexual abuse iconThe American Psychological Association defines child sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.”

Sexual abuse can happen in person as well as online. The only difference is how the perpetrator initiates contact with your child. Online abuse usually starts in chat rooms or on social media apps like WhatsApp, TikTok, or Instagram.

Online sexual abuse can become in-person child sexual abuse if the situation escalates. Both forms are traumatic for victims and their families.

In the UK alone, nearly 1 in 20 children have suffered from sexual abuse, according to research with 2,275 young children between the ages of 11 and 17. The Child Crime and Prevention Center estimates there are 500,000 predators active on the internet every day.

Online sexual abuse of young people has varying forms:

  • Hateful or unwanted comments about sex or gender
  • Sending requests for nude photos or videos
  • Performing sexual acts for a live stream or recording without the consent of everyone involved
  • Sending nude or private pictures without consent to a recipient
  • Grooming children to enable sexual abuse either online or in-person
  • Sharing someone’s nude or private pictures without their express permission, often known as revenge porn

What is Child Grooming?

Online “grooming” or “child grooming” is how child welfare professionals a premeditated plan by sex offenders or an online predator involving a series of steps to gain a child’s trust and ultimately manipulate kids into some form of sexual exploitation and abuse.

This can happen in person or online. Both are equally difficult to identify, especially in the beginning because the offender hides behind a friendly, fake identity to befriend your child.

Online child groomers follow a few steps:

  1. They create a fake identity (usually as another child or teenager) on a social media site or chatroom to friend kids or young adults. Sometimes they pose as a child’s friends.
  2. Using details they find on social media, groomers compliment children, talk about shared interests, and build friendships.
  3. Next, they will ask questions about the child’s personal life, such as if their parents are around. This is how they gauge how much supervision a child has.
  4. Then, predators will start sending sexual photos or asking for them. They will often try and convince a child or young adult that this is normal, and that everyone is doing it.
  5. Finally, the sex offender will make more extreme asks by blackmailing a child for sexually explicit videos, money, or trying to meet up in person.

It’s unfathomably disturbing to think that people could act this way. However, as a part, you must know the signs of grooming so you can look out for them and warn your child about them.

How common is online sexual abuse?

Because children often go years without reporting abuse by internet predators or sex offenders, it’s hard to know exactly how many children are victims. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be a high number.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had a record 21.7 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation made to its CyberTipline in 2020.

Parents can’t act too soon to prevent child grooming or sexual advances by an online predator. Next, we share essential steps to teach your child about the risks and signs of grooming and how to prevent becoming a victim of online predators.


How to Prevent Abuse from Online Predators

Infographic showing how to prevent abuse from online predators

Every parent needs to know how to prevent their child from becoming a victim of sexual abuse. Offenders are discreet and their plans thought out. Your prevention plan should start with a conversation because you can’t stop your child from using technology altogether.

First, explain to your child your concerns and the risks of online predators. They need to understand the risks so they can make critical decisions on their own.

Then, together, you and your child can take steps to limit their risk while using internet-connected devices like tablets or smartphones.

1. Talk to your child about online predators

Online, people are rarely who they say they are. Explain to your child that in some extreme cases, adults pretend to be children in order to befriend them and eventually ask them to perform sexual acts or send nude photos.

They shouldn’t accept friend requests or messages from someone they don’t know directly. Depending on the age of your child, share a recent news story with them about how online predators find and deceive children. Describe the steps a predator takes to groom children. This way, your child can look out for signs, too.

Start talking with your kids at an early age. You can even start the conversation with your toddler about body parts and personal safety.

When you start talking at a young age, conversations about sexual topics feel less awkward because they start to expect it. Make conversations like this routine in your family.

The more your child knows, the better equipped they are to think critically about potentially dangerous situations.

2. Explain the risks

Preteens and teens are curious about things that aren’t typical topics of conversation with Mom and Dad, like sex or drugs. Flirting, even sexting, can be a normal part of healthy teenage development.

Because of a young adult’s natural curiosity, they will seek answers to their questions (or an outlet for their curiosity) online. This means they may end up in chatrooms or having conversations with strangers on social media messaging apps. This is where situations can become risky, even dangerous.

Explain clearly the consequences of sending photos or videos of themselves online. Try to refrain from your judgment, too. Research shows that kids and teens are more open to conversations that are judgment-free, particularly on sex-related topics.

Here are examples of the risks to children online:

  • Once something is shared in a message or sext (even if the platform is supposed to be “secure”) the photo or video is forever online. All it takes is one hacker, one sexual abuse offender, or one jaded ex to publish a photo in one click.
  • Offenders hide behind fake identities. Don’t befriend someone you don’t know.
  • Sexy selfies can be distributed online to be seen by everyone including future employers, teachers, or family members without your child’s consent. A good rule to follow is “Don’t put anything online you don’t want the world (or your grandma) to see.”
  • If someone has a nude photo of them, your kid or teen might be blackmailed or may become a victim of “sextortion.”
  • Revenge porn is an increasingly common problem for teenagers and adults. Though it’s illegal in several states, it doesn’t make the emotional damage any less severe.
  • If they are found sharing nude photos, they can suffer legal consequences due to certain child pornography laws in some states. It’s happened to preteens as young as 14 years old.
  • Being a victim of abuse is emotionally and physically traumatic. Victims can suffer from major depression, anxiety, and physical illness after an attack by a sexual abuse offender.

3. Point out the places where online groomers hide

Be specific and tell your child what apps and platforms online predators like to target kids. WhatsApp, Omegle, Kik Messaging, and other popular social media sites are common ground for these criminals because it’s where a lot of kids look to connect with others.

However, there are also lesser-known websites that are meant to be discrete, like Calculator%. It looks like a calculator but is actually a photo vault that’s been known to house child pornography.

Remind your child that it’s not a good idea to talk to strangers online or to send pictures or videos of themselves on any site or platform.

Websites and apps to look out for:

4. Establish boundaries

Both online and offline, make sure you are clear with your child about expectations. Whether that’s turning off their devices at bedtime, prohibiting certain apps, using privacy settings on social media, or using parental control software like Bark to flag explicit content, be honest with your child about what you are going to do to keep them safe from online predators.

As the parent, it’s ultimately up to you how you protect your child, but remember, you can’t keep them from everything. You can try to delete every app or filter every site. If forced, your child will find a way around it.

It’s the digital age. However, by setting boundaries that give your child some sense of control, like letting them help choose what parental control software you use or allowing the private times with devices, they’re more likely to follow your guidelines and respect your desire to protect them.

5. Keep the conversation going

It’s unlikely your child is going to bring up situations that make them feel awkward, especially things like child grooming or online predators. It’s up to you to check in on them.

Ask them how their friends are doing or if they’ve had any problems with creeps online. Sometimes, it’s easier for them to talk about their friends’ problems. It still gives you an idea of what kids are dealing with and it might be just the invitation they need to talk about anything that’s going on with them.

Make sure to talk to your child regularly and remind them you are always available to talk, night or day.


Signs of Online Child Grooming or Abuse

Signs of online child abuse iconIt can be very difficult to detect sexual abuse or child grooming online. Children may be ashamed or afraid that parents will get angry.

They might not even realize that they are in a very dangerous situation yet.

As a parent, there are some signs you can look for that may indicate something is wrong with your child, especially online:

  • Not wanting to talk/being secretive, especially when using technology
  • Hiding their phone and devices when you come around
  • Acting abnormally irritated or distracted
  • Glued to their phone or social media at all times
  • Making secretive plans to meet someone
  • School participation changes or grades lower
  • Your child has new things (groomers sometimes give gifts to “spoil” children and earn their trust)

Report Online Sexual Abuse Immediately

Infographic showing steps to take if your child is a victim of online sexual abuse

You cannot act fast enough if you suspect your child is a victim of online grooming or sexual abuse. Contact your local law enforcement and/or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) CyberTipline right away.

Then take additional steps to prevent further trauma to your child:

  1. Close the computer, but don’t delete evidence like messages, pictures, or videos.
  2. Follow the advice and instructions of law enforcement on when and how to block the offender.
  3. Remind your child they did nothing wrong. Consider signing up for family counseling. You are not alone in this. There are many free resources available.

Know the Facts and Protect Your Child From Online Abuse

Protect your child iconBy knowing the facts about how online predators target children, you can prevent your child from being in risky situations and give them the tools to notice problems on their own.

You can’t always be with them, so it’s essential that you have frequent open and honest conversations with your child about online safety.

If you suspect your child is a victim, don’t blame yourself. Unfortunately, you are not alone and many families deal with the traumatic consequences of criminal behavior.

There are helpful resources for families to help you through this time including the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or via online chat or the National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD (2-24453) available 24/7.

Protect Your Child From Online Predators: Frequently Asked Questions

Want to know more about protecting your child online? Read frequently asked questions below.

Sexual abuse online involves any hateful comments about sex or gender, sending or receiving unwanted sexual photos (also called revenge porn), or performing sexual acts without the consent of everyone involved.

It also includes sextortion or blackmailing with sexually explicit content, and child grooming to enable sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse online is hard to detect because offenders hide behind fake identities and attempt to establish trust with children. Here are signs of child grooming or sexual abuse by online predators.

  • Obsessively checking/using devices
  • Abnormal mood swings/irritability
  • Hiding devices when parents are around
  • A drop in grades and school participation
  • Spending a lot more time alone in their room
  • New things showing up (child groomers sometimes give gifts)
  • Secretly trying to meet someone in person

Child grooming is when a predator premeditates a plan to manipulate a child to engage in sexual exploitation or abuse. In-person child groomers are often known to the child. Online, they are usually strangers who hide behind fake identities to form a relationship with your child.

Online Safety Journalist
Allison has an impressive research background and a drive to stay on top of the latest trends in cybersecurity to help others combat cybercrime and stay safe online. She has covered a variety of topics but is passionate about informing the VPNOverview readers on online safety and privacy, especially for children and teens.