GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The FBI is sounding the alarm about the increasing threat of child sexual exploitation online.

“(It’s) a global threat to children of all ages,” the FBI wrote in a Twitter question-and-answer session Friday.

Advocacy groups, too, say it’s more important than ever that parents educate their children about online safety, monitor their screen time and employ privacy settings on devices.

“Child predators coerce victims into sharing sexually explicit images or videos through deception, manipulation, gifts or threats,” said the FBI, which hosted the Twitter Q&A along with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Earlier this year, NCMEC announced a “clear and disturbing uptick” in reported online enticement of children.

“In the year 2020 alone, we’ve seen the rate of these types of incidents increase up to 97.5% compared to the year prior,” NCMEC wrote in a blog post.

With children spending more time online amid the pandemic, predators are trying to take advantage.

“It could happen to any child at any time,” FBI Special Agent Mara Schneider said in a Zoom call with News 8. “Predators are contacting young people online through video games, through social media apps, developing a relationship and then convincing (the kids) to send explicit material, like photos or videos.”
Then the criminals threaten to share the images publicly unless the child sends money, more pictures and videos, or engages in sexual relations with the offender.

In late 2020, Michigan’s attorney general joined with school administrators to issue an alert after two Allegan County students were coerced into sending pictures and then threatened with exposure. The predator’s plot was foiled when one of the students tried to pay with a parents’ credit card.

“What makes these predators so successful is that they create this climate of fear and shame in the child,” Schneider explained.

In some cases, that fear and shame has led children to hurt themselves.

“It depends on the child. It depends on how long it’s been going on,” Schneider said. “Some young people are able to kind of get through it and report it and move on. Some young people who have a really hard time talking to someone about what’s going on, (and) who’ve been threatened with exposure, have unfortunately taken their lives.”

Schneider suggested parents talk to their children about online dangers in a non-judgmental way, encourage them to report inappropriate interactions and assure them they will not be in trouble.

“It’s an awkward conversation to have with your child to talk about the dangers of the internet. I think we struggle, and I struggle as a parent, with wanting to keep them safe and not wanting to scare them more than I need to. But it’s starting a dialogue about it to make they understand the risks of talking to someone they don’t know in real life,” Schneider said, noting that it’s common practice for online predators to pretend they are the same age as their target.
“The perpetrators are very good at what they do,” she continued. “There’s a grooming process involved. It could be that the perpetrator’s pretending to another teenager, which is a classic example of what we see.”  

NCMEC listed common tactics of online enticement:

  • Pretending to be younger.
  • Engaging in sexual conversation/role playing as a grooming method, rather than a goal.
  • Asking the child for sexually explicit images of themselves or mutually sharing images.
  • Developing a rapport through compliments, discussing shared interests or “liking” their online post, also known as grooming.
  • Sending or offering sexually explicit images of themselves.
  • Offering an incentive such as a gift card, alcohol, drugs, lodging, transportation or food.

Parents are also encouraged to watch for signs their child is struggling, like behavioral changes, including altered eating and sleeping patterns, withdrawal from social interaction and sudden mood swings.

If you suspect a predator is targeting a child, you’re encouraged to submit a report through NCEMC’s cybertipline or call 1.800.THE.LOST (1.800.843.5678). You can also submit a report to the FBI’s tipline, your local law enforcement, or Michigan’s OK2SAY hotline for students and school employees.