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Protecting Kids from Online Predators: A Mutli-Factor Approach

John Pizzuro talks about protecting kids from online predators.

As the world does more and more online and our kids are ever more connected, protecting kids from predators while they’re online becomes a major concern. Many kids are already addicted to devices, which can make them vulnerable to being preyed upon. The best approach to protecting kids from online predators is two-sided. Legislation to provide protection and reduce risk is important. But equally important is having strong communication with your child from a young age.


See The Balance Between Privacy and Protection with John Pizzuro for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

John Pizzuro spent twenty-five years on the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force with the New Jersey State Police. A random transfer put him there not by any choice of his own. But when he started working on the task force, he found it was the most purposeful thing he’d ever done – so much that even after his retirement, he kept advocating for protecting children online. Now, he’s the CEO of Raven, a first-of-its-kind lobbying organization with the goal of protecting kids from online predators. Raven advocates for law enforcement, technology, funding changes, and other legislative initiatives that will help protect children.

Technology and Changing Behavior

Twenty years ago, John used to warn people about stranger danger. Now, rideshare apps let us text strangers so we can get in their cars. In 2008, there was an average of one computer per household. When John retired, between laptops, smartphones, internet-connected smart devices like TVs and lightbulbs, and smart home systems like the Google Nest, there are an average of twenty internet-connected devices per household. The technology has changed. But what people haven’t realized is that our behavior has dramatically changed because of that technology.

The apps and technology have changed, but what has really changed in the last twenty years is the behavior as a result of that technology.

John Pizzuro

Today, we are dependent on the dopamine we get from likes, follows, and views online. Because of that, we’ve changed where we get attention. And because we’re generally getting online from a safe physical space, we are more likely to get duped. Safe and secure in your own home, the fear responses of your brain aren’t activated.

That’s where people are getting tricked and scammed. And it’s not just children. You can look at the data and see adults, older people, and everyone getting duped by all sorts of things. Your home is a safe place, so by extension, your brain assumes the internet you access from home is also safe, even when it’s not.

When you’re in a safe environment, you don’t tend to believe that something bad’s going to happen.

John Pizzuro

How Predators’ Behavior has Changed

Predators manipulate with language. What does everyone like to talk about most? Themselves and the things they like. A social engineering strategy many online predators use is mimicking language. If you read something and see your own phrases and language repeated back, you start to think, “Wow, this person is just like me!” It gets your guard down. Predators repeat a child’s language because they want the child to believe and trust them. Since our self-esteem comes from social media and our likes, follows, and views, when a child finds someone who can mimic that language and make them feel that connection, they’re hooked. It’s that simple.

The methods have changed now because of the world’s reliance on technology. If a predator wanted to groom a kid twenty years ago, they would have to go take the kid out for ice cream or go talk to them in an actual park. But now the big concern is protecting kids from online predators. If you were watching your ten-year-old at a park and a forty-year-old approached them, you would be on alert. But if your child is playing Fortnite or Robox or something else online, they may be talking to predators from the safety of their own home – and you may not have any idea.

Platforms’ Responsibility in Protecting Kids from Online Predators

John testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in February. One of the questions he was asked was, “Are our social media companies doing enough?” His response was that they aren’t doing anything. It’s a flippant answer, but it’s accurate. The reality is that most of these companies have limited moderation. People on the platform can be whoever they want enjoying whatever they want. There are no identity checks or age verification to determine that this thirteen-year-old is really thirty-three or this thirty-year-old is actually only thirteen.

I can guarantee you that Google and Amazon Web Services and Meta know more about you than law enforcement can ever intrude on.

John Pizzuro

The challenge here is privacy. Everyone is worried about privacy. From a law enforcement perspective, we want to have that ability to do that verification. But it’s hard because they do also need to respect privacy. John doesn’t care what anyone else does, but he wants the information necessary to help protect children from online predators.

Identity verifications could help protect kids from online predators.

There needs to be some sort of verification process. On Tinder, for example, someone could lie and say they are eighteen when really they’re only thirteen. Law enforcement needs to be able to find that out without exposing other privacy data. They are looking to protect children. Everyone is on the platforms, but the platforms don’t do nearly enough.

Challenges of Technology in Protecting Kids from Online Predators

Artificial intelligence has some potential for monitoring and analysis. But there’s a lot we don’t know about the technology, and there needs to be regulation. Online predators can even use AI to help with their grooming. Let’s face it, if they can get access to some of a child’s online history, what better to imitate it with than AI? The tech has its uses, but it’s important to consider how it’s regulated and introduced.

End-to-end encryption is another challenge. Lots of platforms use it. Last year, 32 million cyber tips were sent into the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. How many of those came from Apple? Ten. With about a billion iOS devices devices out there, that number is abysmally small. Nobody is getting tips from them because they’re blocking everything with end-to-end encryption.

The reality is that platforms make billions of dollars, and they spend millions on lobbyists to lobby for them. But where’s the duty to care? Who is responsible for protecting kids from online predators? If we put a back door into an encryption to help us protect children, privacy advocates would say that their data isn’t safe. There needs to be a balance.

There’s an old saying that goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” If we don’t do anything, everyone’s going to suffer. It’s better to do something good in the right direction, even if it’s small. Hopefully, we’ll be able to implement something that can help protect kids from online predators.

What Parents Can Do to Protect Kids from Online Predators

Kids understand tech. It drives John nuts every time he goes to a restaurant and sees someone hand their phone to a two-year-old. But that two-year-old knows the system better than the adult does already. Parents need to have conversations with their kids. Right now, most of us aren’t talking about how predators are actually trying to victimize children and groom them online. And those conversations need start early. If your child is doing anything online, you need to have age-appropriate conversations and keep open communication about the risks. That’s one of the biggest steps you can take at home to protect your kids from online predators.

If you’re talking to your child when they’re twelve or thirteen, it’s already too late.

John Pizzuro

Schools will talk about vaping, drugs, alcohol, and teen pregnancy. Why aren’t we also teaching our kids about the impacts of social media and the risks of online predators? One potential reason is that no one wants to talk about child exploitation in general. Another is that parents are often so addicted to their own devices that they don’t have time. John knows how easy it is to put on an episode of Netflix in the evening and then suddenly realize it’s 2 AM. The devices are designed to take as much of your attention as possible. It comes down to your relationship with the device.

Statistics about Crimes Against Children

There is a large child predator community on the darkweb. These are communities where people share techniques and “best practices” for preying on children. A guide to seducing four-year-olds, for example, has been read 55,000 times. When John gives a presentation somewhere saying what people should do to protect kids from online predators, posts show up in these darkweb communities about how to change their behavior so they don’t get caught.

Using peer-to-peer networks, there are 100,000 people in the United States in the last ninety days who have distributed or shared toddler rape or sex abuse videos. In contrast, there are only 728 cases being worked by law enforcement right now. Dr. Michael Bourke did a study called the Butner Study where he found that 50-85% of people sharing this content were hands-on offenders. If you extrapolate that number, there are 450,000 victims of childhood sexual abuse in the United States that we haven’t gotten to yet, and between 50,000 and 85,000 perpetrators.

A Lack of Funding

Raven exists to try to shrink these numbers. Funding, for example, is a huge issue. ICAC Task Forces received $33 million, while high-intensity drug trafficking task forces received $596 million. There isn’t a lot of money, resources, or laws helping with this.

We’re at a point where there’s more child victimization now than there’s ever been anytime during our history.

John Pizzuro

ICAC Task Forces work on 90% of the child exploitation cases in the United States. But they are understaffed, underfunded, and under-resourced. The 2008 Protect Our Children Act started ICAC and promised $60 million in funding, but never received it. At that time, there was only one computer per household. Since then, advancing technology has incrased risks. Cyber tips have gone up 100%, while funding has only increased 30%. And between essential software and the time and manpower to sort through terabytes of storage, it costs money to investigate. Raven is the funding and technology mechanism to help with these problems. They try to hold tech companies accountable and promote robust legislation to protect kids from online predators.

Stronger legislation will help protect children from online predators.

John’s Ideal Legislative Changes

John wants to see laws that will better protect kids from online predators. One such law is one currently called the “Parental Empowerment Act” that aims to make sure parents can at least protect kids on their devices. He also wants to see a reauthorization of the Protect Our Children Act of 2008 with increased funding and requirements for tech companies to send more information with their cyber tips.

One of the biggest hurdles to passing any legislation to protect kids from online predators is partisan politics. Right now, Republicans have the House of Representatives and Democrats have the Senate. A major point of contention between the two parties is government spending. Raven is trying to articulate that this is where money should be put and why. The Senate Judiciary hearing was a good thing, as it showed this is a bipartisan issue. Whether Democrat or Republican, nobody is arguing that we shouldn’t save children. The challenge comes in figuring out how to do it in a way both parties will support.

How You Can Get Involved

If you want to get involved in Raven’s mission to protect kids from online predators through legislation and lobbying, go to raven.us. They make it simple to take action. Other things you can do to help are providing funding through donations and talking with your legislators. If you need support in your town or need guidance in talking to your elected officials, Raven is happy to provide their expertise.

If enough [people] want something done, the last time I checked people that get elected want to stay elected.

John Pizzuro

Ultimately, use your vote to make it clear that protecting kids from online predators is important to you. Tell your legislators that they need to take it seriously or you won’t vote for them again. If enough people get on board, they will either start listening to you or get voted out and replaced by someone who will take this seriously. We need accountability. For too long, no one has been accountable for the danger children are in. Nothing has changed since 2008. If we want to protect kids from online predators, we have to start advocating for changes.

Learn more about John Pizzuro and Raven and find ways to get involved at raven.us. John offers education on child exploitation, darknet grooming, and similar topics at johnpizzuro.com. If you need a speaker on this topic for your organization or institution, please reach out.

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