Family, Kids & Relationships

What parents can say to kids to protect them from online grooming

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As much as it benefits all of us and makes our lives easier, the internet can also be a very dangerous place—especially for kids.

In fact, since the start of the pandemic there’s been a 97 percent increase in the inappropriate online enticement of minors by adults across the internet. In addition, there’s an alarming new trend involving an increase in predators manipulating kids into creating their own explicit content (also known as “self-generated” child sexual abuse material, or CSAM). With kids online now more than ever, their risk for exposure to CSAM (commonly called child pornography), whether in shared images or produced themselves, is at an all-time high. 

All parents should know the warning signs of predatory grooming, so you’ll be better able to detect if there’s a problem your child is dealing with. In addition, teaching children how to spot red flags commonly seen with online predators can help them see potential issues coming—and tell you about them—before being hurt. Both parental and child education about what to watch for are really helpful tools in the fight against CSAM. 

First, here are four warning signs parents and caregivers should be on the lookout for—and what to do about them!

Signs your child may be exposed to predatory grooming

  1. They want to spend more and more time online
  2. They’re secretive about online activities
  3. You notice they’re using new and adult language, especially of a sexual nature
  4. They’re showing increased emotional volatility or defensiveness

Increased time online / Being secretive about online activities

Any noticeable increase in time spent online without any clear reason should be monitored. 

If your kid quickly hides their screen when you come near them, or if they are generally vague about what they’re doing and who they’re talking to online, they may be at risk of exposure to online predators.

Using adult language / Emotional volatility

Take note if you hear your child using adult language you wouldn’t expect them to know—especially language of a sexual nature. This type of language could be coming from someone discussing inappropriate topics with them, or trying to see if they can gradually get your child to feel comfortable talking about sex or sexual acts.

If your child is exhibiting more emotional volatility than usual, or is acting unusually defensive in combination with any of these other warning signs, they may be experiencing predatory behavior online.

Steps you can take to protect your child online

1. Review privacy settings on their devices and apps. Make sure personal info is kept private.

2. Know who their friends are. Staying familiar with their social circle can help you identify when they’re interacting with someone out of the ordinary.

3. Teach them to report abuse. Learn how to report predatory behavior in the apps they use frequently and make sure they know how as well!

4 Internet Red Flags for Kids to Look Out For

In your ongoing family discussions about staying safe on the internet (we have a great script for what to say to kids about online safety, if you need help getting started) be sure to tell them about the warning signs that could indicate a predator (whether it’s a stranger, a friend, or even a family member) is grooming them for abuse. These criminals are very subtle in the ways they gradually gain trust and access to your child, so letting kids know what to be on the lookout for can help them recognize the signals before things go too far. For example, your child should tell you or another trusted adult right away if:

  • Someone is asking them to keep a secret.
  • Someone they don’t know is giving them gifts or LOTS of compliments.
  • Someone is sending them sexually explicit material. 
  • Someone they don’t know is asking for their personal information.

“Can you keep a secret?”

This is one way that predators isolate and build trust with their victims. Explain the difference between a good secret like a surprise party, and a bad secret like keeping something important from their parents.

 “You could be a model!”

Of course, we all love getting compliments—but if a kid is being showered with gifts and compliments by a stranger online, that’s a red flag. Using flattery to make a kid feel good and important is a classic grooming strategy and kids should learn to watch out for it!

“Can I show you something private?”

Anyone—especially strangers, and ESPECIALLY adults—sending sexually explicit material or talking about sex to kids online is worth telling a parent about. This one might seem obvious, but predators can be tricky by claiming that they just want feedback or advice about a photo, or by convincing kids that everyone else is just “babying” them but they’re definitely old enough to engage in inappropriate conversations. Explain to your child that if they aren’t sure, or they receive any message that feels uncomfortable, it’s ALWAYS ok to tell an adult.

“Are your parents home?”

Kids should never give out their personal information to anyone online. Even innocent-sounding questions like, “What school do you go to?” can be a way for predators to gain more access to a child.

What to say to your kid about grooming red flags online…

“If you’re not sure about something you see online, ask me and we can decide together.”

“If you realize you’ve made a mistake online, you can tell me and I promise not to get mad. I’m just here to support you.”

“Trust your gut. If it feels wrong it probably is. You don’t have to share anything with ANYONE online if you feel uncomfortable.”

Of course no one wants to believe that something terrible could happen to their child, but unfortunately, statistics show that it’s a possibility. By having these conversations often, starting as soon as your child spends any time unsupervised online, you can help keep the odds in your child’s favor.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.