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How Predators Use Social Media to Target Kids Online

Learn how predators use social media to target kids online.

You wouldn’t let a stranger have unlimited time alone with your kid. But if your child has a tablet, smartphone, or any device with a communication feature, predators may be able to get that kind of access to your child. This is especially a risk if your kid spends time on social media. As a parent, you need to know how predators use social media to target children and the steps you should take to keep them safe.

What Predators Want

You may assume that after reading all the news stories about the predators arrested for trying to meet up with a minor, you know what online predators want. But in reality, not all predators want the same thing. And it’s important to know the different goals they can have, because what they want affects how predators use social media.

The thing most people assume predators want is to meet up with your child. And that does happen. Many predators want to convince your child to meet in person, whether to hurt them themselves or to to traffic them. The key is “convince.” 100% of victims taken by predators went willingly. Predators aren’t going to forcibly kidnap your child. Instead, they use social media to manipulate kids into voluntarily going with them.

But some predators don’t necessarily want to meet up with your kid. They may instead be after sexually explicit images, either for their own gratification or to sell to others. They may also want money. In a form of blackmail called sextortion, the predator uses social media to gain the child’s trust and convince them to send explicit images. Then they threaten to send those images to parents or friends unless the child gives them money. (Less commonly, they may ask for more explicit images instead of money.)

Finally, and least commonly, they may be after information. Predators know that kids may not know they’re not supposed to share information. They can get details out of children that they can use to target their parents – by creating tailored and more effective scams, getting information for security questions on bank or investment accounts, performing virtual kidnapping, or even learning about the family’s schedule to plan a robbery.

Predators’ Strategies on Social Media

Though their goals can differ, and therefore some of the strategies can vary, there’s a basic formula to the way predators use social media. And most of these schemes aren’t just limited to social media. Any place online where someone could send or receive messages – including chat rooms and even in-game chats in online games – are other places where predators could go after your kids.

Getting Sexual Immediately

This is the most obvious strategy, and also the one easiest to avoid. After they contact your child, they almost immediately turn the conversation sexual or ask for pictures. If the child keeps up the conversation or sends the pictures, the predator will keep in contact to get more sexual conversation and images.

But if a child responds negatively or refuses to send pictures of themselves, the predator gives up and moves on. Predators using this strategy on social media are after explicit photos of your kid. But they’re in it for quick results. They don’t want to take the time to build a relationship or gain a lot of trust. If a potential victim isn’t immediately receptive to the predator’s manipulation, they will end the conversation and move on to the next victim.

Impersonating a Child

Parents concerned about predators on social media often teach their kids to be suspicious of strange adults online. But both parents and kids tend to be less suspicious if they think the other person is a peer. So some predators pretend to be a child themselves. It makes them seem less suspicious and can help build a relationship with their intended victim.

This is a common strategy if the predator’s goal is to get photos of their victim. But they may also use the trust they build to convince the victim to meet with them. They may even offer to “trade” photos, using photos they’ve gotten from previous victims. Once they have your child’s images, they may use them to pretend to be your child. It gives them a new cover to gain the trust of other kids.

Pretending to Have a Desirable Life

Children ages twelve to fifteen tend to feel flattered by attention from adults – especially adults who seem to have things they want. Some predators won’t use social media to pretend to be a child. Instead, they will reveal that they are an adult but pretend to have a fantastic life. They may claim to have a luxurious lifestyle, business success, a lot of freedom, or other things that are appealing to teens. Tools like Photoshop and generative AI can even create images and videos that look like they’re really living the life they claim.

How predators use social media to make their life appealing to kids can vary. They may pretend a lot of money and success. They may promise a life of freedom and adventure away from a boring school with no friends. Or they might target kids who are LGBT or questioning their gender or sexuality by promising a community of accepting people where they don’t have to be afraid to come out. Whatever the method and whoever the target, the goal is to make the child start thinking that life might be better with this online stranger than it would be at home. This is especially common if the predator eventually plans to convince your child to meet with them.

Predators Use Social Media to Gain Trust

Grooming is the opposite of getting sexual immediately. A predator who takes the time to build trust to manipulate and groom a child is in it for the long game. These predators often use social media in advance to research your child. They find out what your child is interested in, what kind of language they use, what kind of complaints they have, and what media they like. People aren’t always aware of how much information is available online that a predator could use to start a conversation with a child.

That conversation starter is generally about something they know the child is interested in. After they’ve started to talk, they then work to build trust. They listen to their potential victim, sympathize with their problems, validate their feelings, and make them feel like this person understand them. Kids often want to be treated “like adults” and have their opinions heard and respected. Predators use that desire and make their targets feel like their opinions are heard and respected. They give the child compliments, attention, affection, and kindness. Sometimes they even send gifts.

All of these strategies make the child feel like the predator they’re talking to on social media is a great person. The child enjoys the attention and affection they get from the relationship, and having an adult claim to respect their opinions can make them feel proud and valued. All of these emotional factors build a strong bond of trust between the predator and their target, and makes grooming and exploitation much easier.

Using Trust for Grooming

Building trust is the first part of the grooming process. Once that trust is established, the predator can use that bond to manipulate the child. They may move conversations from social media to other apps. Often they choose apps like Kik or Discord that parents may be less familiar with. They don’t want a parent or authority figure finding out what’s going on.

A predator often starts the grooming process by making the conversation increasingly personal. Many kids don’t see that as a red flag. Instead, they’re flattered that someone is taking such an interest in them. The predator will also introduce sexual content into the conversation. By the time they get to that stage, the child trusts them enough and is used to talking about personal topics, so it doesn’t feel weird to them.

In addition to getting the child comfortable being sexual with them, the predator also uses grooming to isolate the victim from their family and friends. They will use a kid’s feelings and frustrations against them. Predators may tell a child that they’re smarter than all their friends, and their friends don’t really care about them anyway. The child’s parents wouldn’t understand, and they don’t actually want the child to be happy. Everyone in the child’s life is holding them back and they deserve better.

Through the process, the predator uses social media and these manipulative conversation to establish themselves as the only trusted caregiver and get the child to withdraw from and mistrust friends and family. Predators may groom their victims for only a few days or for years. Without intervention, a victim of grooming may genuinely believe that the predator is the only person who really cares about them.

Any Kid can Be a Victim

Children’s brains are still developing, and predators are master manipulators. No matter how intelligent your child is, any child can be targeted by predator on social media. Expecting kids to be able to protect themselves from online predators is like putting them in the middle of a professional sports match and expecting them to score. They’re not physically or mentally mature enough to handle it, and though they may get lucky, they’re most likely to get hurt.

Don’t assume that demographic factors will protect your child, either. Many people assume that predators mostly target young girls. But that’s not always the case. Predators target kids of all ages and genders. (In fact, teen boys are an especially common target.) Age, gender, location, intelligence, socioeconomic class … none of those factors will protect your child from how predators use social media.

Any kid can be a victim. But also remember that any adult can be a perpetrator. Not every predator is a balding middle-aged man in his parents’ basement. Some are teenagers themselves targeting younger kids. News stories have revealed volunteer firefighters, Boy Scout leaders, teachers, and professors arrested for targeting children online. Don’t assume that a particular characteristic or profession automatically makes someone safe for your child to spend time with.

How Parents Can Protect Kids from Predators on Social Media

Your kids’ first line of defense against predators on social media is you, the parent. Be vigilant and take steps to protect your kids. Start by teaching your kids how to be safe online. Teach them to be suspicious of all strangers online and all messages they weren’t expecting. Don’t let them “friend” or interact with people online that they don’t know in real life.

Also teach them what kind of information they should never share online, such as their last name, where they live, or what school they go to. And make sure they know the consequences of posting anything sexual online. A digital footprint can follow them for life. And posting sexual pictures of themselves isn’t just a bad idea – it’s illegal. It counts as distributing child pornography, even if it’s their own photos.

Parental control software can help you monitor your child’s social media use. This can help you spot signs of a predator before your child sees anything suspicious – and before grooming starts. If you spot it, you can protect your child. And if you do find something, report it. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a cyber tipline at report.cybertip.org. Always report any predators you find on social media. Even if it’s not your kid, they will find other victims.

In addition, be a safe space for your child if something happens. If you find something on their phone or they tell you about something weird happening, don’t get angry, punish them, or blame them. Remember that it’s your child’s developing brain against an adult master manipulator. Support them and help them deal with the situation.

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