The Digital Law Company explains what parents need to know to protect their children from sexual predators online.

Sexual predators have always hung out in spaces providing easy access to children. This has become worse in the digital age. Instagram, gaming chat rooms, Tik Tok – and whatever tomorrow’s next social media craze will be – are the modern-day playground for teens and tweens. They are therefore, also a very popular hangout for sexual predators.

We have seen a dramatic increase of cases where young boys and girls are groomed into sending sexually suggestive photos or videos to strangers. The person poses as a teenager on social media, but they are in actual fact an adult (usually male). These paedophiles prey on multiple victims.

The sexual predator in the digital age is slick and knows exactly how to get the attention of a victim. They set up a profile that a victim would be interested in. The predator then follows and/or likes accounts liked by the victim so that it appears that they have a number of mutual friends. The number of followers and likes on social media is one huge popularity contest: the more followers, the better you are.

Predators rely on fake accounts

We had one particular case at the Digital Law Company where the victim was a 12-year-old girl. Like any girl her age, she wanted affirmation. When a seemingly good-looking 14-year-old boy from another Johannesburg school started messaging her on Instagram – she was really flattered. She happened to be dyslexic and experienced difficulty with text-messaging. She would send the ’14-year-old’ voice notes. The real clincher was when he told her that he too, was dyslexic. It made her feel safe. Comfortable enough to send photographs of herself in her underwear to him. He was actually a 49-year-old (non-dyslexic) man.

In another case – an Instagram page pretended to be an official Miss Teen South Africa account. The account lured hundreds of young girls with the promise of an international modelling contract and R500, 000 in prizes. They were asked to send a WhatsApp to the number of an international modelling scout for the “international model verification process”. Soon enough the “verification process” required that the young girls send photographs of themselves naked. This was not Miss Teen South Africa – it was a sexual predator living in South Johannesburg.

Precaution makes all the difference

What parents have to understand is that the frontal lobe – the impulse control and decision-making part of the brain – is not fully developed until the age of 25. Teens and tweens do not understand the concept of permanent consequences for their actions. They live for instant gratification. Without overseeing what your kids are doing on social media, checking in frequently and having multiple conversations around their online activity; your kids are bound to make the kind of mistakes that have serious and long-term psychological, reputational, and even legal consequences.

So, what can you do to keep your teens and tweens safe from sexual predators?

  1. Ensure your child has a private account.
  2. Have conversations with your child about:
    • Stranger danger and not talking to people they don’t know in real life.
    • Being discerning about who they allow to follow them on Instagram. Explain to your children that being popular on Instagram is like being rich in Monopoly!
    • Blocking anyone who makes them feel even in the slightest bit uncomfortable.
    • Confiding in you whenever they feel upset/uncomfortable or threatened.
  3. Consider setting up a smartphone contract between you and your child to encourage good digital citizenship. You can download a smartphone contract from the Digital Law Company website.
  4. Limit time spent online. There are a number of apps and tools which allow you to limit the time your children spend online or on specific apps. Apple’s Screen Time app and Google Family Link are two free and relatively easy to use options.
  5. Disable location services on the app so that your child’s location is not accessible to others.

The ways in which people engage online changes all the time, and teens and tweens are always the first to jump onto the latest trend. But whatever new technology or app get used, you can be sure that your child is safer when they adopt good cyber-safety practices.