Children face a greater chance of being exposed to predators via online games, social media and tech devices — a risk heightened by an increasing reliance on technology in schools.
A national cyber tip line tracking online exploitation of children received more than 18 million tips last year, a number expected to double this year, according to Callahan Walsh, a child advocate for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Mr. Walsh noted that while reporting has improved over the years, many cases still go undocumented. And the use of online devices for teaching kids creates more possible exposure and risk to exploitation.
“More children are likely being exposed as the internet becomes more and more part of our everyday lives,” he said, noting a shift toward popular online games and away from traditional social media accounts.
And new platforms may not have safeguards, presenting another challenge to online safety, he said.
“It’s tough for parents. It’s like whack-a-mole,” Mr. Walsh said. “One pops up, and the parent tries to understand that one platform and the next thing you know, the child is not on that, but on these other ones.”
“That’s why it’s difficult for parents to keep up and to try to understand everything that is happening in the digital landscape,” he said. “That landscape is constantly changing. Those waters are constantly shifting.”
The FBI confirmed that the number of children exposed to predators has risen, as the latest online games, chat apps and social media sites act as a staging ground for possible child exploitation.
“For kids, they need to be careful online and aware that there are people out there looking to exploit them. The internet connects kids to the world, but it also connects the world to kids,” the FBI told The Washington Times. “You never truly know whom you’re communicating with, so kids should keep their social media accounts private and never share any identifying information with or send any pictures to anyone they don’t absolutely know.”
“Children risk being contacted by unknown individuals seeking to sexually exploit them, or exposure to inappropriate content,” the agency said.
Katie Greer, an internet safety keynote speaker and CEO of KL Greer Consulting, said parents often forget about the dangers of children chatting with gamers online and forget to have “stranger danger” conversations with their children when it comes to online environments.
“We think that we have the whole stranger conversation taken care of when they are in kindergarten, but yet we don’t realize our kids have access to strangers in games like ‘Fortnite’ or ‘Minecraft’ or ‘Roadblocks’ or TikTok, the social media app,” Ms. Greer said.
With the internet, she said kids have more access than ever to strangers in general, which is something that parents know is not safe for children.
“Know what apps your kids are using and know their basic functionality,” she said, adding that parents should know if there is a way to connect to strangers through the apps and if there are any control settings to limit contact.
Ms. Greer, who has presented internet safety seminars across North America, said many schools also need to button up policies and expectations on online safety. She said she has come across schools that don’t put filters on devices or don’t have great policies around online safety.
Many of these learning devices are coming home, and managing online security is now one of the greatest challenges for both parents and schools, said Linsly Donnelly, senior vice president for consumer operations for Securly, a children’s online safety company that provides monitoring tools to thousands of schools.
“A lot of homework is only on devices,” Ms. Donnelly said. “There’s no way to just put your head in the sand and say I’m not going to deal with this technology as a parent or a school any longer.”
She stressed schools should audit for cyberbullying and use filtering tools to keep certain websites and content off devices kids use for learning and homework.
Mr. Walsh said internet safety is not just about locking down devices but about empowering children at a young age how to be safe online. He said every school should be required to teach kids about internet safety.