Sometimes I get tired of tech-related horror stories in the news. Maybe you do, too. After all, we all know technology can be misused in nasty ways.
I get that. Still, it’s important for us as parents to keep paying attention, even when we’re tempted to tune out. So I’d like to tackle a topic today that may indeed sound like old news. But it’s still very relevant: the way sexual predators use online video games to prey on unsuspecting young players.
Earlier this year, a 41-year-old Florida man used the incredibly popular online video game Fortnite to establish contact with a number of minors with whom he may have had a sexual relationship. But while the article dishes out some harrowing details, it’s not one of a kind, unfortunately. Predators will use whatever means necessary to get in contact with children. And it just so happens that gaming has become a place where predators gather to coerce, manipulate and threaten kids into sexual activity.
The FBI calls it sextortion.
The crime occurs, as the FBI says, when “young people believe they are communicating with someone their own age who is interested in a relationships or someone who is offering something of value. The adult can use threats, gifts, money, flattery, lies or other methods to get a young person to produce these images.”
It’s common for these predators to offer kids codes to level up in a particular game, such as Fortnite. But that’s just the first step in online grooming. Next, they lure kids to another online platform (social media, apps) and then ask for sexually explicit photos and videos. Of course, if the child complies, the predator asks for more. If they decline, the predator threatens to post their videos on the internet, potentially ruining aspects of the children’s lives. And in the most extreme cases, a predator may initiate personal contact with a child, resulting in further abuse.
Fortnite was the entry point in the story above. But the potential for such interactions extends to any game or app that enables online interactions with people unknown to your kids. So what’s a parent to do?
Parental Conversations and Controls
First, know what your kids are into. You might not have any personal interest in a particular game or fad, but it pays to understand and get involved with the games your kids love. The more open the communication lines, the more your children will be inclined to tell you what’s going on and to trust you.
That enables you to assess risk directly, and to set necessary boundaries such as teaching kids not to give out personal information, never sending photographs or videos and talking to you if they ever have suspicions about someone trying to lure them into a questionable relationship online. If your child does express concern, take what they say seriously, and seek to limit further potential contact.
Second, get to know the security settings on your kids’ games. Is there a way to turn off the chat option? Are there privacy settings that your kids can benefit from? Is there a webcam that can be turned off? Are kids using strong passwords and keeping their social media accounts set to private?
These are all ways that you can set up some practical boundaries to help your kids. And even if you think there’s no way your child would ever fall for the kinds of lurid situations we read about in the news, it’s better to be engaged and informed than to be devastated by something like this happening to your family.
Technology isn’t going anywhere. But as parents, we don’t need to fear the unknown. Rather, we can educate ourselves and use what we learn to help protect our kids.
For more information about Focus on the Family’s resources about online safety, click here. And for more on sextortion, the FBI offers further resources on this important subject as well.